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After South Africa filed a  lawsuit with the UN’s International Court of Justice claiming Israel is violating the UN convention on genocide by “killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction,” Israel’s past relationship with South Africa’s Apartheid regime regarding trade and alleged exchange of nuclear technology became the subject of discussion. [1]

The UN Special Committee Against Apartheid

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The UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, established in 1963, reported it had “followed with concern the increasing collaboration between Israel and the racist regime in South Africa in recent years.” On November 9, 1976, the General Assembly, “expressed its deep concern in a resolution about these developments, especially the military assistance provided by Israel to South Africa, and requested the Secretary-General” to extensively circulate the report of the Special Committee. [2]

“Acting on the report of the Special Committee” the General Assembly on December 14,1977 condemned the growing relations between Israel and South Africa and requested the Special Committee “to keep the matter under constant review and report to the General Assembly and to the Security Council as appropriate “[3]

Simha Ehrlich’s Official Tour to South Africa

In February 1978, The New York Times reported that Simha Ehrlich, Israel’s Finance Minister, made an official visit to South Africa to increase commercial ties “in an effort to broaden the market for Israeli goods while at the same time making maximum use of a source for much‐needed raw materials,” which provided considerable help in expanding Israel’s steel industry. The materials and financing were managed by Iskoor Steel Services Company, a South African subsidiary of Israel’s huge Koor Industries. The Times added that “foreign sources claimed that this joint steel deal includes development of a special armored plate to provide greater protection for the Israeli‐developed Chariot tank, the existence of which was made public here last year.” [4]

Despite criticism within the US and Israel of Erlich’s mission, the Times “found every indication that Israel will continue to rebut criticism of such links, as was done in an editorial… in the independent newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. The newspaper approved of Ehrlich’s mission and rebuffed criticism. “It is not up to us to; fight the wars of others, just as they do not fight for us.”’ the paper said. “Many of those who condemn Israel, themselves maintain trade contacts with Pretoria. As to that country’s international policy, it is still more liberal than many Communist dictatorship states. We say this to ward off the attacks of the hypocrites who have united to condemn Ehrlich’s tour.” [5]

When a group American college presidents visited Israel a few months before Erlich’s trip, asked whether Israel’s relations with South Africa were prudent in view of US President Jimmy Carter’s anti-apartheid position toward that country. Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan indignantly responded that “It is not the business of the President of the US whom we have for friends so long as we are within the law.”  [6]

Israel Ambassador to the UN Yehuda Blum’s Response to UN

In response to being singled out by members of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, who questioned the extent of Israeli trade, Yehuda Blum, who served as Israel Ambassador to the UN from 1978–1984, explained the volume amounted to two-fifths of one percent of South Africa’s foreign trade. This compared to South Africa’s other trading partners who accounted for 99.6 percent of the total, but who were apparently not regarded worthy enough for a special report. [7]

If the goal of the debate on apartheid is to create a record of countries trading with South Africa Blum said, then few counties at the UN would be missing from the list, and Israel would assume a negligible position on it, even compared to those most outspoken in condemning apartheid, including  members serving on the Special Committee. An accurate assessment would show South Africa still importing oil as previously it had done, and that the “two-way traffic of oil and gold,” amounting to billions of dollars, between the Arab oil -producing states and South Africa continued “unabated.”  In return, the Arabs received building material and food supplies. [8]

Blum had no problem discussing Israel’s trade activities as long as the same standards were applied in evaluating the other states represented. He suggested a full accounting of investments, trade, tourism, oil and gold procurements and covert and overt visits. Then there should be a separate vote for each country continuing these connections. The UN Third Committee (The Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee) and Fourth Committee (The Special Political and Decolonization Committee) had already revealed that trade still continued between the countries critical of Israel’s trading with South Africa. [9]

Exports to black Africa in 1979 increased by 39 percent from the previous year. South Africa had commercial links with 46 of the 52 member states of the Organization of African Unity. Of even more importance Blum suggested was an article in The New York Times of November 17, 1978 stating that “ammunition for the (Rhodesian) Security Forces—once in short supply—is reported to come in by circuitous route from Middle Eastern Arab states.” Despite this “infinitesimal trade” with South Africa, the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid referred to Israel as having an “alliance with apartheid.” [10]

Chaim Herzog, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Response

Commenting on Israel’s relations with South Africa, Chaim Herzog, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN from 1975-1978, noted “the only difference between Israel  and those who attack it is that while Israel openly acknowledges the existence of such relations, they deny their own.” Israel is targeted not because of the trade he continued, but because they will use every chance they have to attack Israel. On March 12, 1973 The West Africa publication confirmed this observation: “The Arabs identify with the Black Africans only because of their votes in the United Nations and other conferences.” [11]

Herzog reminded critics of Europe’s share of the $19 billion invested in South Africa which amounted to $13 billion according to a November 1977 report in The New York Times. The African countries accounted for eight percent or over $1 billion of Africa’s trade. The Soviet Communist bloc increased their trade by 13 percent, while the Soviet Union marketed their vast diamond production through South Africa’s De Beers. A Washington Post report of November 8, 1977 from Johannesburg corroborated Soviet involvement in supplying weapons: “It is estimated that the bloc supplies up to half of South Africa’s private weapons….They are displayed in arms shops next to American-made Colt pistols.”  [12]

Herzog argued that to suggest that having relations with a country implied acceptance of their social, political or economic policies is “utterly absurd.” Were that the case, every nation would be in an untenable position. American political leaders regularly communicated with their colleagues in the Soviet Union and China and worked on ways to expand trade, while East and West Germany conferred about their ongoing relationship without the slightest suggestion that they subscribe to each other’s form of government. [13]

Bayard Rustin, a veteran African-American civil rights leader highly critical of South Africa, understood that Israel’s relationship with the country did not reflect negatively on Israel: “As one who has very serious reservations about detent because of the repressive nature of the Soviet Government, I do not interpret American trade with the USSR as approval of the persecution of Jews, intellectuals, artists and scientists. Nor do I think that trade relations with South Africa represents Israeli or the black African nations’ approval of apartheid.” [14]

He also feared that “the condemnation of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, would obscure mankind’s rejection of racism and apartheid.”  As director of Black Americans To Support Israel Committee (BASIC), formed by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph in response to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3379, “Zionism is Racism” passed November 10, 1975, Rustin said the organization supported the right of the Palestinian Arabs to “genuine self-determination, but not at the expense of the rights of Jews to independence and statehood.”  He presciently observed that by proclaiming Israel’s illegitimacy and condemning Zionism, this will only make the “problem of the Palestinians more intractable and diminish the likelihood of a lasting and just peace.”  [15]

Footnotes

[1] Tony Karon, “The ghost of apartheid has come back to haunt Israel and give hope to Palestinians,” The Guardian (January 10, 2024);Bret Stephens, “The Genocide Charge Against Israel Is a Moral Obscenity,” The New York Times (January 16, 2024).

[2] Special Reports of the Special Committee Against Apartheid General Assembly Official Records : Thirty Third Session Supplement No. 22A .(A/33/22/Add.lland 2):7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] William E. Farrell, “Israeli Tours South Africa As Arms‐Trade Furor Grows,” The New York Times (February 10, 1978); Special Reports of the Special Committee Against Apartheid op.cit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Yehuda Z. Blum, For Zion’s Sake (Cranbury, New Jersey: Cornwall Books, 1987).

[8] Ibid. 217-218.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Chaim Herzog, Who Stands Accused? Israel Answers Its Critics (New York: Random House, 1978), 150-152); for a review of Africa’s special and unique place in Israel’s foreign relations see Dr. Arye Oded, “Fifty years of MASHAV activity Jewish Political Studies Review,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs 21:3-4 (Fall 2009) (October 26, 2009);  Ehud Avriel, “Israel’s Beginnings in Africa, 1956-1973, Memoir,” in Israel in the Third World, Michael Curtis and Susan Aurelia Gitelson, Eds. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books,1976), 69-74.

[12] Herzog, op.cit.

[13] Ibid. 154-154.

[14]  Bayard Rustin, Letter from Black Americans To Support Israel Committee (BASIC) to unknown. No date. Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem  S/10/47.

[15] Ibid.

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.