Israel and South Africa: A Comparison of Policies

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VOL. 14


No. 3
P. 101
Israel and South Africa: A Comparison of Policies


In the summer of 1982 an Israeli family was sailing in the Green islands during the height of their country's invasion of Lebanon. They were shocked to find that they were met with hostility by everyone they saw there, even normally friendly Western Europeans. The only exceptions were a South African couple, who welcomed them saying "you're just like us. We're outcasts too." [1] 


The story serves to illustrate an increasingly dangerous phenomenon. Israel's international status is approaching that of South Africa, which is regarded as an international pariah. This similarity has been developing since the election of Menahem Begin's Likud bloc in 1977, but it definitely gathered momentum over the summer of 1982 with the invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps outside Beirut. The similarities are much stronger than most people realize and deserve careful examination.


The most obvious comparison lies in the diplomatic position of the two countries. South Africa was expelled from the UN General Assembly in 1974 and has very few friends around the world. Even the country's firmest ally, the United States, regularly reminds the world that it disapproves of South Africa's racial policies. [2] The US is also Israel's closest ally but the relationship was seriously strained after Begin was elected, although relations have improved considerably since his October 1983 retirement. Several attempts have been made to expel Israel from UN organizations as well, and although they have failed so far, the notion has steadily grown more popular, particularly among Third World nations. [3] 


The relative isolation owes to the image the two countries project. South Africa's government is widely regarded as the paragon of white racism, for it denies all political rights to native Africans living in the country. Israel, once considered a shining example of democracy, has seen that image sadly tarnished by her treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza and by the Likud's determination to annex the occupied territories, despite the hostility of the whole world to that idea. Justifiably or not, Israel's treatment of the Arabs under her control has been equated with South Africa's barbaric handling of Africans and other groups in that country.


The problems of the two countries are similar in many ways. Each is regarded as an outpost of Western civilization (or western imperialism) in the Third World. Israel was founded by Jews from Europe and, although their percentage in the population is steadily declining, they have firmly established Western culture as the predominant one in the country. Yet her location places her right in the middle of the Arab world, which does not identify with the West. Similarly, South Africa was established first by Dutch and later by English immigrants who have given her a decidedly Western culture, but she is the only white-ruled country in all Africa south of the Sahara. Thus, both nations are regarded as intruders by their immediate neighbors, who believe that the countries should be Arab, or Black-ruled respectively.


Despite the opinions of outsiders, both the Israelis and white South Africans regard their countries as their God-given homelands. The Israelis base their claim on the fact that Israel was the home of the Jews in Biblical times, from which they were driven by the Romans against their will. Afrikaners (Dutch-descended whites) argue that South Africa was empty when they arrived in the 1650's and that they have lived in Africa as long as whites have been in North America. Their strongly Calvinist beliefs (Dutch Reformed Church) have convinced them that God predestined them to settle in South Africa and they, like the Israelis, refer to their country as the Promised Land. [4] Thus, neither people would entertain the notion that they have no right to live where they do.


Both peoples can point to a journey in the nineteenth century as the spark of their spiritual rebirth. For the Israelis, it was the First Aliyah of the 1880's, the earliest modem emigration of European Jews to what was then Ottoman Palestine. This was the first attempt to put the idea of Zionism into practice and the Israelis consider the people who made this journey to be pioneers. In the same vein, Afrikaners regard the Great Trek of the 1830's as a symbolic event. It was then that the Dutch settlers in what is now Cape Province migrated further north to escape English rule and preserve their way of life. This journey also had pioneering aspects to it, since it was a move into an area inhabited by African tribes, and Afrikaners feel that their culture would never have survived without it. A further historical comparison concerns the significance of the year 1948 for both countries. That was the year that the state of Israel was founded but it was also crucial for South Africa, for it was then that the Nationalist Party was first elected into office on a platform of apartheid and Afrikaner dominance. They have run the country ever since and implemented the same policies.


The two countries are also alike in the siege or fortress mentality that their governments exhibit. Seeing their explanations of policy fall on deaf ears around the world, they take the attitude that "the rest of the world is against us" and defy world opinion willfully. This government attitude has been evident in South Africa since the 1950's and in Israel since Begin's election. This is no coincidence, for the ideas of the Likud, which had never been in power until 1977, bear many similarities to those of the Nationalists.


Both parties represent conservative, right-wing philosophies and both are extremely nationalistic. The Nationalists believe in white supremacy and separation of the races. They began a homelands policy in the 1960's and have turned over 13 percent of the country to establish "independent" Black states (Transkei, Bophutatswana, etc.) so that all Africans living in South Africa will eventually have citizenship in another country. Within the white community, the Nationalists believe in Afrikaner predominance over the English-speakers and they strongly support the advancement of Afrikaner language and culture.


Likewise, the Likud-which is a coalition based on Begin's Herut Party-believes that the Jews have an historic right to all of Biblical Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza. While they do not officially advocate a policy similar to apartheid, the numerous settlements they have established in the occupied territories have all been built apart from Arab towns, and Jews in those territories have definitely been given preferential treatment. [5] Both parties take a strong stand against terrorism and each has demonstrated that it is willing to cross international borders (South Africa in Angola, Lesotho and Mozambique; Israel in Lebanon) to stamp it out.


The strident nationalism manifested by each party to some extent represents frustration with their perception of being in the political wilderness for so long. For the Nationalists this perception does not coincide with reality but it is a firm belief nonetheless. Their party was organized during the 1910's to represent Afrikaner interests and they formed their first government in 1924. It lasted a full nine years, until Prime Minister James Hertzog merged the Party with Jan Smuts' South Africa Party. Conservative Nationalists regarded this move as a betrayal and formed a "purified" Nationalist Party which had to go into opposition. They remained there until the dramatic 1948 election, but they have run the government ever since then, a period of thirty-seven years. [6] 


The Likud have far more justification for considering themselves outcasts. They had their origins in the Revisionist Movement, which broke away from mainstream Zionism in the 1930's. It advocated more militant policies toward the British and the Arabs, and rejected territorial compromise in the Land of Israel. They were always a minority and earned a negative image when they set up the terrorist Irgun during and after World War II. Even though they formed a political party (Herut) after independence, they were treated as pariahs by the dominant Labor movement and were completely snubbed by David Ben Gurion, the nation's first Prime Minister. The fact that they lost the first eight national elections gave them the appearance of a permanent opposition party until their breakthrough in 1977. [7] 


The breakthrough to some extent owed to demographic changes taking place in Israel, changes which in many ways also bring it closer to the South African model. In each country the ruling class (whites and Jews) is actually split into two main ethnic groups. In South Africa these are Afrikaners and English, with the approximate ratio being 60-40 in favor of the Afrikaners. Until World War II they were largely a rural people, who kept little contact with the outside world, who spoke a language unknown in the rest of the world (Afrikaans) and whose world view was shaped by an extremely fundamentalist religion (Dutch Reformed). While they have become considerably more urbanized in recent years, their outlook remains largely unchanged and they strongly support the Nationalist Party. The English- speaking South Africans, on the other hand, have always been city dwellers, have maintained contact with the outside world through the British Commonwealth, and have consistently supported more liberal policies (at least by South African standards) than have the Afrikaners. But their numerical disadvantage and their relative lack of interest in politics compared to the Afrikaners have left them in the position of a permanent minority. Every Prime Minister since South Africa was formed in 1910 has been an Afrikaner. [8] 


The Jews of Israel are similarly split between the Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (Middle Eastern and North African) communities. The Ashkenazim arrived first and made up the overwhelming majority when the state of Israel was founded in 1948. Their culture was Western, they maintained close contact with Europe and America, and the majority of them supported socialism. As a result, they have consistently given their support to the Labor Party (originally Mapai), which espouses socialism and which won every national election until 1977. The Sephardim did not begin immigrating in large numbers until after the state was founded and only recently have become the larger group. As newcomers, they were at a considerable disadvantage compared to the Ashkenazim, a problem com- pounded by their lower levels of skills and education. A predominantly blue collar group, they view themselves as oppressed and blame the Ashkenazim for the discrimination. They originate from Arab countries, and tend to dislike the Arabs and favor more hard-line policies than the Ashkenazim. Begin, although Polish himself, capitalized on Labor's neglect of the Sephardim and Sephardi support of strident nationalism to pose as their champion, a ploy which he first utilized successfully in 1977 and then again in 1981. [9] 


These two elections opened up the long-range possibility that the Ashkenazim and their political voice, the Labor Party, could be consigned to the same permanent opposition status as the English now have in South Africa. The Sephardim are today Israel's largest ethnic group and with a birth rate higher than that of the Ashkenazim (but lower than the Arabs'). They are likely to remain so for a considerable time to come. If the Likud can continue to hold the Sephardi vote in a solid bloc, [10] they may dominate Israeli politics for years to come, much as the Nationalists have in South Africa.


However, at this point we must take note of some differences between the two systems. Having lasted for thirty-seven years, Afrikaner and Nationalist Party dominance is an established fact in South Africa. Sephardi and Likud bloc control have the potential for permanence, but at this point it is only potential. The July 1984 elections saw the Labor Party finish first but by such a small margin (44 to 41) that they were unable to form a coalition without the Likud, and eventually they had to agree to a national unity government. Leading political commentators have noted that the biggest surprise of the election was how well the Likud performed despite enormous disadvantages. Inflation had risen to 400 percent, the two-year occupation of Lebanon had become extremely unpopular, and Begin-the country's most dynamic campaigner-had refused to take any role whatsoever in the Likud effort. In those circumstances, Labor should have won an overwhelming victory, but the party actually lost three seats from its 1981 total; the Likud did lose seven seats, but other rightist parties picked up three of them. Some analysts attribute this unexpected Likud strength to the depth of support which the party has among its followers and the refusal of most Sephardic voters to support Labor under any circumstances. [11] The results prevented either party from putting together the 61-seat majority needed to govern, thereby making a national unity government the only viable option. But the general consensus seems to be that this government will have a short lifespan and that another election will be necessary within two years. If the Likud can win that contest-and based on their 1984 showing they should have an excellent chance to do so-then the theory of long-term Likud-Sephardic dominance will be much more tenable.


In contrast, the Nationalists have managed to maintain political control through nine consecutive elections, the last seven of which have seen them win at least a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Their hold on power is far firmer than that of the Likud, despite the recent challenge from the right, in the form of Andries Treurnicht's Conservative Party, which has been created by rebellious Nationalists who fear the party's new "moderation." In November 1983 the Nationalists were able to gain a two-thirds majority in a referendum to give limited representation to Colored and Asian South Africans, in the face of strong opposition from the Conservatives and the Progressive Federal Party, which is the country's major liberal organization. While the Colored and Asian turnout at the polls in August 1984 was quite low (30 percent and 20 percent respectively), white voters seem solidly behind the nationalists. [12] 


Other differences between the two countries emerge in the treatment given to their subordinate groups. Israel's record is far better than South Africa's, and a distinction must be made between Arabs in Israel proper and those in the Occupied Territories. Arabs with Israeli citizenship have full political and civil rights and several of them sit in the Knesset, but those in the West Bank and Gaza have not been given these rights and have been under military rule since 1967. It is here that most of the abuses the world reads about have occurred, not in Israel itself. [13] In South Africa, Blacks do not have the vote and have had their civil rights denied them consistently by the Nationalist government. Consequently, it would be an injustice to claim that the two countries are guilty of the same abuses.


Additionally, Israel's political system is far more open than South Africa's. Her press, radio and television are extremely vigorous and are subjected to censorship only in matters of national security. South Africa does have an opposition press but it is far more limited in what it can print. Interestingly enough, in both countries it is the English language press which is the greatest nemesis of the government. South Africa has several English newspapers, such as the Rand Daily Mail, which oppose the Nationalists, while the Jerusalem Post is the best known opposition paper in Israel.


More fundamentally, the nature of the controversy in the two countries is different. Israel has a Jewish majority and its Arab minority has full legal rights. That is not the issue. But the Likud bloc wants to annex the West Bank and Gaza against the wishes of the Palestinians living there, bringing 1.3 million more Arabs under Israeli rule. Jews would still comprise a majority of this Greater Israel (3.5 million to 2 million) but the margin would be much smaller and the new residents would be much more restive. However, Israel could avoid this problem and maintain a substantial Jewish majority by simply refusing to annex the territories.


South Africa's problem is more difficult to solve. Blacks currently outnumber whites by a margin of four to one but have no political rights. Unlike Israel, where the Arabs have been given the vote without threatening the system, any effort to give South African Blacks the ballot would almost certainly bring an end to white rule. The Nationalists' unique solution to this problem has been to divest themselves of roughly 13 percent of the country, turning it over in parcels to the various tribes to form their own "states." Every African in the country will eventually become a citizen of one of these states, whether he wishes to or not, even if he has lost all vestiges of tribal heritage. He may then continue to live and work in South Africa, but as a foreigner he will not be entitled to any civil or political rights. This subterfuge may seem clever on paper, but in practice it is proving to be a failure, for these new states are devoid of natural resources and cannot exist without South African assistance. On the other hand, South Africa's economy would collapse if these "foreigners" were not available to work in her mines, factories and farms. The Black riots which broke out in September 1984 demonstrated the depths of anger which the majority harbor over their impossible situation. [14] 


This comparison shows us that Israel and South Africa are attempting two opposite policies. The Israelis are making preparations to annex new territories which would increase their Arab minority, while South Africa is giving up land and turning it into new states to alter the status of her African majority. Israel is concerned with territory in this instance, for she feels that she would be threatened if the West Bank were put into Arab hands. The threat to South Africa is not territory but people, for it is the population makeup of the country which creates the danger to its stability.


The intent of this article is not to accuse Israel of behaving like South Africa but to sound a warning that recent actions are beginning to point her in that direction. It would be foolish to argue that in just eight years Israel has arrived at a position which it took South Africa thirty-seven years to reach. Furthermore, Israel has a much stronger democratic tradition than does South Africa, which has consistently denied civil and political rights to all non-whites. The public outcry in Israel over the massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla camps in 1982 testifies to the openness of that society, and the report of the Commission of Inquiry on those massacres, which forced Ariel Sharon's removal as Defense Minister, stands in stark contrast to the whitewash the Nationalists arranged in investigating the Soweto riots (1976) and the death of Steve Biko (1977). Begin apparently had hoped to follow South Africa's example when he initially refused to appoint an investigative commission, but public opinion forced him to change his mind.


However, the combination of a long-term Likud predominance in power and the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza could push Israel farther along the South African path. Several Likud politicians, Sharon in particular, demonstrate a contempt for democracy and civil liberties, and the party's continuation in office could erode those values over time. [15] If the occupied territories are annexed, Arabs will comprise 35 percent of Israel's population, and with a much higher birthrate than the Jews, their proportion in the country will increase. The situation will threaten Israel's character as a Jewish state, and she will be faced with the option of allowing Arabs to play a much larger role in the government, of expelling large numbers of Arabs from the Territories (Meir Kahane's solution), or of adopting South Africa's repressive policies. All those who seek peace between Arabs and Jews must fervently hope that Israel has the foresight not to place herself in such a dilemma.


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1. Jerusalem Post International Edition, September 26-October 2, 1982.

2. The early months of 1984 brought a dramatic break in South Africa's isolation as she signed military agreements with two of her most bitter enemies, Angola and Mozambique. Later that year Prime Minister P. W. Botha toured Europe and was received by several heads of state and government leaders.

3. Yehuda Blum, Israel's former UN Ambassador, quoted in New York Times, August 11, 1984.

4. Information Service of South Africa, Progress Through Separate Development, New York, 1965, pp. 4-17.

5. Report of Karp Commission to Israeli Government, Jerusalem Post International Edition, Feb. 12-18, 1984.

6. Leonard Thompson and Andrew Prior, South African Politics (New Haven: Yale U. P. 1982), pp. 99-106.

7. William Frankel, Israel Observed (New York: Thames & Hudson 1980), pp. 48-58.

8. John de St. Jorre, "Inside the Laager: White Power in South Africa," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Fall 1976), pp. 169-176. The tenure of P. W. Botha (1978-) has brought some changes in this political alignment. As Botha has moved to reduce "petty apartheid" and to bring Coloreds and Asians into the system, he has lost a minority of right-wing Afrikaners but gained a substantial share (25-33 percent) of the English vote. See also Glenn Frankel, "Afrikaners: A Tribe Divided," Washington Post series, July 29-31, 1984; and The Economist, July 21-27, 1984, p. 36.

9. Daniel Elazar, "Israel's New Majority, "Commentary (March 1983) pp. 33-39; Michael Curtis, "The Evolution of Israeli Politics," Middle East Review, Vol. 15, Nos. 1-2, pp. 59-63; Ofira Seliktar, "Ethnic Stratification and Foreign Policy in Israel: The Attitudes of Oriental Jews towards the Arabs and the Arab-Israeli Conflict," Middle East Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 1984) pp. 34-50.

10. They have won roughly twice as many Sephardic votes as Labor in recent elections, according to Elazar, Curtis and Seliktar (see note 9).

11. Daniel Elazar, quoted in New York Times, July 24, 1984; Shlomo Avineri, "Who Won in Israel," Newsweek, August 6, 1984; Yaron Ezrahi, quoted in New York Times, July 26, 1984; Yosef Goell, "All at Sea," Jerusalem Post International Edition, July 29-August 4, 1984.

12. Patrick O'Meara, "South Africa: No New Political Dispensation," Current History (March 1984), pp. 105-8 and Time, September 10, 1984, p. 28.

13. Jerusalem Post International Edition, February 19-25, 1984.

14. Chester A. Crocker, "South Africa: A Strategy for Change," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Winter 1980-81), pp. 323-351 and John Dugard, "Denationalization: Apartheid's Ultimate Plan," Africa Report (July-August 1983), pp. 43-46.

15. Despite his resignation from the Defense Ministry, Sharon is still a major figure in the Likud and a definite prospect for Prime Minister when Shamir steps down as party leader. In April 1984 he gained 42 percent of the party vote against Shamir in a leadership contest, a testament to his reservoir of support. Jerusalem Post International Edition, April 16-22.