South African PM’s embrace by Israel in 1976 sheds light on faux outrage over Amnesty’s apartheid report

South African Prime Minister John Vorster of Apartheid South Africa as an official guest in Jerusalem in 1976 (File)

David Samel 

Mondoweiss  /  March 3, 2022

Israelis hope that their alliance with the apartheid regime in South Africa is forgotten now that Amnesty International is leveling the apartheid accusation against Israel.

One obvious assumption shared by both Amnesty International and those outraged by AI’s accusation of Israeli apartheid is that apartheid is a repugnant system that morally stains anyone associated with it.

Today, of course, there is near unanimity of opinion on that issue, but during the apartheid era, that wasn’t the case. President Reagan adopted a policy of “constructive engagement” with the Pretoria regime, gently encouraging South African government “moderates,” a policy Desmond Tutu denounced as an “unmitigated disaster.” When Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation imposing sanctions, Reagan vetoed it, forcing Congress to override. And while the South African government and security apparatus cruelly oppressed the country’s Black population, it was not government officials but the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela who were placed on the State Department terrorist list. Somehow that designation continued well into the 21st century, long after apartheid was dismantled.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shared a very similar view of the conflict, labeling the ANC a terrorist organization and opposing any effort to impose sanctions that sought to pressure South Africa to abandon apartheid.

And what about Israel, whose leaders and supporters are now so anxious to distance the country from the stench of apartheid? Israel’s long-time close relationship with apartheid South Africa is very well-documented but there is one episode that is especially telling. In April, 1976, at the height of the apartheid regime’s strength and apparent invulnerability, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin invited South African Prime Minister John Vorster to visit Israel to cement their countries’ friendship. This was barely five months after passage of the UN General Assembly Resolution listing Zionism as a form of racism amidst much dramatic hand-wringing.

The Rabin-Vorster meeting was a resounding success, if success is measured by significant economic and military agreements rather than principles of morality and decency. At a state banquet, Rabin toasted his honored guests, boasting of “the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa: the hopes for justice and peaceful coexistence” in the face of “foreign-inspired instability and recklessness.”

A couple of months after Vorster’s visit, the South African Government, less worried about appearing too openly racist, echoed Rabin’s  expression of kinship while saying the naughty part out loud:  “Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.” Israelis usually prefer the more genteel euphemism of “tough neighborhood.” There was something quite natural about an alliance between two countries that shared the open assignment of rights, privileges, and status based upon skin color and ethnoreligious heritage at the expense of the indigenous population.

As bad as this sounds, the Rabin-Vorster summit was even worse. A few decades earlier, during World War II, Vorster had joined the Ossewa-Brandwag, which sided with Nazi Germany and even supported creation of a government “modeled loosely on Nazi Germany.” Vorster rose to the position of “Chief General” in the organization. His wartime efforts on behalf of the Third Reich earned him nearly two years of internment. Nevertheless, in 1976, Rabin and the Israeli leadership not only ignored and/or excused this heinous past but also had Vorster tour Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. A reporter declared that Vorster appeared “moved” by the commemoration of the millions of victims of the regime he had so ardently supported.

The forgive-and-forget “graciousness” extended to Vorster is in stark contrast to the decades-long Israeli campaign collectively vilifying all Palestinians for the pro-Nazi stance of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. While the Mufti, like Vorster, was pro-Nazi, there has been a concerted effort to grossly exaggerate both al-Husseini’s popularity among Palestinians and the extent of the blood on his hands. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned a humiliating rebuke by Holocaust historians when he claimed that Hitler was intending only to expel Jews until al-Husseini whispered into his ear to kill the Jews instead.

So according to Israeli lore, al-Husseini’s association with the Nazi cause during the War justified the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel in 1948, but Vorster himself earned complete forgiveness for his similar WW2 activities once he proved his value by rising to lead the most explicitly racist government on Earth. Israel saw in Vorster an image of its own likeness, and his past support of the Nazis was relegated to an irrelevant and excusable historical footnote.

Ironically, the Israelis hope that their comprehensive military and economic alliance with the apartheid regime in Pretoria is just as forgotten and ignored today as was Vorster’s past villainy by the Rabin government. Their current shock and outrage at being associated with apartheid should be measured against the country’s own willingness to openly associate itself with apartheid, even at the cost of embracing an avowed racist with a history of pro-Nazi activism.

David Samel is an attorney in New York City