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South Africa and Israel: new memorial park within the Jewish state highlights complicated historical past

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Israeli officers and Jewish South African activists have inaugurated a memorial park in Tel Mond, a metropolis north of Tel Aviv. Opened in in November 2022, Gan Siyabonga (We Thank You Backyard) commemorates a number of dozen Jewish South African anti-apartheid activists who had private connections to Israel.

The principle sponsors of Gan Siyabonga are the Jewish National Fund South Africa and South African Zionist Federation. The park’s creation is a milestone within the South African Jewish neighborhood’s decades-long introspection into its complicated relations with the apartheid regime.

This memorial website is exclusive in Israel, the place an estimated 20,000 South Africans stay.

Gan Siyabonga is the primary website in Israel to focus on the involvement of Jews within the anti-apartheid wrestle. It is usually distinctive as a result of it calls consideration to a bunch that was each anti-apartheid and pro-Zionist, or no less than not anti-Zionist. The mixture is taken into account unconventional right now. That’s as a result of Zionism, the political ideology that favours a Jewish state, is basically related in South Africa with collaboration with apartheid and the oppression of Palestinians.

Gan Siyabonga is a reminder that relations between Zionism and apartheid, and between Israel and South Africa, had been complicated and multilayered. In the previous few years I’ve been engaged on a PhD dissertation that explores this complexity. Digging into archives and historic periodicals revealed a captivating story that defies some assumptions.

Israel’s troubled relations with apartheid

Israel is often remembered as one of many final allies of apartheid South Africa. From the mid-Nineteen Seventies, the Israeli authorities maintained close relations with the minority white regime in Pretoria.

It was one of many last countries to implement full sanctions on Pretoria. Because of this, many anti-apartheid activists, together with Jewish ones, held fierce anti-Zionist stances. These had been amplified by the sturdy alliances South African liberation actions solid with the Soviet Union and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

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The accusation that Israel practises apartheid-like insurance policies towards Palestinians is one more reason Israel hasn’t been seen as anti-apartheid. Current anti-Zionist rhetoric by some Jewish veterans of the South African wrestle, akin to Ronnie Kasrils, strengthened this sense of unbridgeable contradiction between Israel and anti-apartheid values.

Help for Israel

However anti-apartheid activism and Zionism weren’t at all times in battle. Up till the late Nineteen Sixties, many radical anti-apartheid activists had been sympathetic in direction of Israel and Zionism’s extra progressive strands.

In 1948, most radical activists in South Africa supported the institution of the State of Israel and its warfare towards the invading Arab armies in Palestine. The Guardian, the primary radical weekly in South Africa on the time (linked to the South African Communist Party), rooted for an Israeli victory.

Younger Israel was a logo of opposition to racial persecution and fascism. These two themes strongly resonated with South African anti-apartheid activists. They tended to see the Afrikaner National Party as an ideological relative of the Nazis.

The preliminary Soviet support for Israel, and a distinguished socialist component inside Zionism, additionally contributed to those emotions, particularly amongst South African Marxists.

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From the late Fifties, many anti-apartheid activists cherished Israel’s stances towards South Africa at the United Nations. Equally its support for decolonisation in Africa. By the early Nineteen Sixties, Israel had change into essentially the most anti-apartheid nation within the “western” camp of the Chilly Battle. In 1963, it recalled its envoy and supported worldwide sanctions towards South Africa. Israeli archives comprise many letters from South African liberation actions thanking Israel for its assist on the UN and elsewhere.

An old typed letter signed by an ANC official praises Israel
Letter from ANC officers praising Israel. Israel State Archive

In the course of the Nineteen Sixties, Israel provided covert materials assist to anti-apartheid teams, even perhaps to Nelson Mandela. Israeli experiences impressed the early phases of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the African Nationwide Congress’ (ANC) navy wing, for instance by Arthur Goldreich. It additionally had steady communication channels with the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania.


Sympathy in direction of Israel diminished significantly after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. However relations between anti-apartheid activism and Zionism remained sophisticated.

Many Jewish people who joined the wrestle towards apartheid had been lively in Zionist youth actions. The socialist-oriented Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair stand out. Those that joined the anti-apartheid wrestle (akin to Joe Slovo and Baruch Hirson) sometimes deserted Zionism. However they acknowledged its function in forming their radical worldview.

Jewish South African people had been distinguished within the liberal strand of the anti-apartheid wrestle too. They often used their skilled abilities to problem the apartheid regime. Legal professionals like Isie Maisels, parliamentarians like Helen Suzman, journalists like Benjamin Pogrund, and rabbis like Ben Isaacson had been examples. Jewish liberal activists often expressed assist for Israel in varied methods.

Developments for the reason that mid-Nineteen Seventies have largely overshadowed the complicated historical past of Zionism’s engagement with the apartheid regime. The anti-apartheid wrestle grew to become tightly related to the Palestinian wrestle. And, after its rise to energy in 1994, the ANC reaffirmed its dedication to its Palestinian allies.

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Since then, relations with Israel have largely remained chilly. The ANC supports the motion to boycott Israel and Pretoria downgraded its illustration within the Jewish state. South African international affairs minister Naledi Pandor has called for Israel to be declared an “apartheid state”.

A step in the fitting route

Israel and South Africa’s Jewish communities have an extended and ambiguous historical past of entanglement with race politics. There have been admirable moments on this historical past. However there have been additionally intervals of complicity with racism. In Israel, either side of this historical past are largely forgotten.

Gan Siyabonga is a vital first step in inserting this historical past within the Israeli public sphere.