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Israel and South Africa


In August 1961, Chaim Yahil, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a letter to Israel’s minister in Pretoria, Simcha Pratt, which said: “This country [Israel] cannot keep silent in the face of the policy [of apartheid]. Not only absolute justice but also the essential interests of our policy demand that we take a stand.” This reflected Israel’s opposition to apartheid which was based on a desire for closer relations with the newly independent states of black Africa and opposition to racial separation.

Many opponents of apartheid in South Africa were Jewish. In 1964, the leaders of the African National Congress, among them Nelson Mandela, were tried for their underground activities. Six of the 18 accused in the “Rivonia Trial” were Jewish. The Israeli Foreign Ministry, led by Golda Meir, initiated a joint manifesto by philosopher Martin Buber and writer Chaim Hazaz calling for the release of the defendants and ending apartheid in South Africa.

Israel had contacts with the African National Congress (ANC), and invited its exiled leader, Oliver Tambo, to visit Israel in 1964. Israel recalled its Legate from South Africa (Israel didn’t have an embassy in South Africa but held a legation) at the end of 1963 and replaced him with a Chargé d’Affaires until the 1970s. All this was done in accordance with UN Resolution 1761, which called all states in the UN to break off their relations with South Africa.

Israel’s position was delicate due to concern for the large Jewish community in South Africa. Consequently, Israel spoke out against apartheid in international forums, but maintained close diplomatic ties with the government. The relations harmed Israel’s image and served Arab propaganda, while its anti-apartheid policy created tensions with the South African government

Despite the role of Jews in the anti-apartheid movement, Israelis did not believe they appreciated the sensitivity of their government’s position. Simcha Pratt called the Jews “present day Marranos” because of their fear of the South African government and the leaders of the ruling National Party. He criticized the lack of self-respect of the Jewish leaders who were willing to humiliate themselves completely “to please a government which supports racism and to criticize Israel.”

The relations between Israel and South Africa began to warm after the Yom Kippur War. Other African states, in which Israel invested money, manpower and goodwill, broke off relations with Israel en masse during and after the war (Uganda, broke off relations already in 1972). In reaction, Israel improved its diplomatic, economic and military relations with South Africa. Nevertheless, Israel continued opposing apartheid, but not as intensively as she did during the 60s.

Source: “‘Israel cannot keep silent in the face of apartheid’: Israel and South Africa, 1961-1967,” Israel State Archives;
“Israel and Nelson Mandela, 1962 -1965: A Call for Freedom,” Israel State Archives.