How Israel Took a Stand against Apartheid

November 12, 2021 | Colin Shindler
About the author: Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. His latest book, The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History, has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Yesterday Frederik Willem de Klerk, who as president of South Africa oversaw the end of apartheid, died at the age of eighty-five. As it happens, this week also marks the 60th anniversary of an impassioned speech at the UN by Israel’s then-ambassador Arieh Eshel condemning the racism of the South African regime. Eshel’s stance, writes Colin Shindler, was typical of the Jewish state’s attitude:

In July 1961, Ben-Gurion told the visiting president of Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] that Israel condemned the South African government’s policy of apartheid as well as the Portuguese dictatorship for its conduct in its colony, Angola. . . . Golda Meir later contemplated the closure of the Israeli diplomatic mission in South Africa and the cessation of El Al flights. For both Ben-Gurion and Meir, this was a founding principle of the Zionist experiment. In May 1901, Theodor Herzl, influenced by the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen, had confided to his diary: . . . “Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

Menachem Begin [later] argued that it was not in Israel’s interests to antagonize the South African government. Begin condemned apartheid, but was more concerned that the Jewish community might come to harm. Sections of the Afrikaner press at the time were adamant that Jews in South Africa had to choose either Pretoria or Tel Aviv—but not both.

The Afrikaners had looked upon Israel after 1948 with admiration and viewed its rise mainly through the lens of religion. They erroneously understood Israel as similarly taking the path of racial separate development. [After Eshel’s 1961 speech, the South African foreign minister Eric] Louw described Israel as “ungrateful and hostile.”

Yet Louw was no friend of the Jews. He had told [his country’s] parliament on the eve of the Second World War: “I am convinced that if it were possible to remove Jewish influence and pressure from the press and from the news agencies, the international outlook would be considerably brighter than it is today.”

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