Thursday, August 12, 2010

Black and White Case

WRMEA, August 2010, Page 70

The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Relationship With Apartheid South Africa

By Sasha Polakow-Suransky, Pantheon Books, 2010, hardback, 336 pp. List: $27.95; AET: $18.50.
Reviewed by Ian Williams

SASHA Polakow-Suransky's book, The Unspoken Alliance, is subtitled "Israel's Secret Alliance With Apartheid South Africa"—but it certainly was no secret to anti-apartheid campaigners worldwide, nor to the African National Congress (ANC), whose victory and present control of Pretoria's archives has allowed the author to unveil some genuinely shocking secrets.

Polakow-Suransky details the alliance and the active part in fomenting it played by the "official" South African Jewish community, drawing out the various threads of a relationship which so many people from all sides of the political divide wanted to hide. For example, he shows how President Jimmy Carter, now ostracized for echoing domestic Israeli concerns about apartheid, effectively buried the details of Israel's 1979 nuclear test off the southern shores of South Africa. He did not want the Lobby even more on his case than they already were.

Indeed, reading this book while looking at the current responses to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the Goldstone Report induces a certain sense of "déjà vu all over again." Apologists for Israel denied the relationship with apartheid South Africa, lied about the size of the economic and military connections, claimed that others were doing it anyway, excoriated the ANC as terrorists—and, of course, alleged that only anti-Semites would have an interest in bringing up such inconvenient facts. Polakow-Suransky shows how, in fact, South Africa was Israel's biggest arms customer, while the latter bought and resold the otherwise embargoed diamonds.

Since for decades, demonization of anyone who has had contact with an enemy of Israel has been a standard media and political tactic, it is always interesting to see how previously interned Nazi supporters like B.J. Vorster could become honored guests at Vad Yashem, quite apart from their devotion to apartheid. Particularly sinister was Israel's hosting of Dr. Wouter Basson, whose hobbies included stockpiling the Ebola virus, dropping enemy soldiers out of planes over the sea, and trying to develop a biological weapon that would target only blacks. He went to inspect Israeli military hospitals.

Polakow-Suransky interviewed many survivors on both sides of this relationship, one of the most striking aspects of which is that it went beyond cynical realpolitik: the white South Africans and the Israeli military really got on well together. They liked each other and what they stood for, and the IDF and South African forces were eager to learn from each other about maintaining control over hostile populations. Shimon Peres wrote of a "common hatred of injustice," and "a close identity of aspirations and interests."

The book might dispel some residual illusions among Western apologists for Israel's Labor party. Polakow-Suransky depicts David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and older Labor politicians as being ethically opposed to apartheid, in contrast to cynical pragmatists like Yitzhak Rabin, Peres and other more recent figures. The author might be too kind to the older generation, mistaking their geopolitical assessment of the possibilities for Third World support with ethics, but there is no doubt that their successors were not concerned about the ethics of dealing with apartheid, but rather with the consequences of being found out.

Polakow-Suransky explores the confusion caused by the then-reflexive American liberal support for Israel against its anti-apartheid instincts, but I have my own addition. Before he died, I interviewed Rabbi Arthur Herzberg, who told me that he had agreed with Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) that in return for the Congressional Black Caucus not raising the issue of Israel's sanctions busting, it was assured of full support from the Jewish caucus for its domestic agenda. This is clearly an ethics-free zone, but Polakow-Suransky maps out the moral dimension dispassionately, readably and compellingly in this revealing work. Sometimes, issues really are black and white.

Ian Williams is the Washington Report's United Nations correspondent.

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