The aim of Chris McGreal’s two-day feature in the British Guardian newspaper is to convince readers that Israel “bears a disturbing resemblance” to apartheid South Africa. This accusation, which is a staple of the most virulent anti-Israel propaganda, has been widely debunked by veterans of the anti-apartheid movement and others. (See CAMERA’s initial Alert on the McGreal series for more on this subject.)
This article addresses the errors and distortions in part two of McGreal’s feature, the Feb. 7 article entitled “Brothers in arms–Israel’s secret pact with Pretoria.” (Part one of the segment is addressed here.)
The main thrust of his article–repeated again and again–is that South Africa’s Jewish community was complicit in apartheid; that Israel stood out in its cooperation with Pretoria; and that Zionism and Israeli society are inherently racist. Using techniques more in line with political advocacy campaigning than with professional journalism, McGreal carefully avoids mention of counterclaims and facts that might contradict his assertions.
South African Jews
It’s important to first note that McGreal’s attack on South African Jewry is completely irrelevant to the question the journalist purports to answer in the article (namely, whether Israel is similar to apartheid South Africa). What does the behavior of a small Jewish community thousands of miles away from Israel tell us about Israeli policy? Nothing, unless one were promoting the racist idea that the Jewish people–whether in Africa twenty years ago or in Israel today–have an inherent taste for apartheid.
In any case, the picture McGreal paints of the Jewish community is incomplete and fallacious, and unfairly and misleadingly singles out the South African Jewish community as supporters and beneficiaries of the apartheid regime.
The article begins with an anecdote about a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Vera Reitzer, who joined the apartheid Nationalist party after moving to South Africa. Only after devoting three paragraphs to Reitzer and her apparently racist views does McGreal admit, albeit equivocally, that she is uncharacteristic of the wider South African Jewish community:
Reitzer was unusual among Jewish South Africans in her open enthusiasm for apartheid and for her membership of the NP. But she was an accepted member of the Jewish community in Johannesburg … while Jews who fought the system were frequently ostracised by their own community.
McGreal’s decision to open his article with four paragraphs about Reitzer, despite the fact that she does not represent her community, is typical of his attempts in the piece to defame the Jews of South Africa. Throughout the article, the writer implicitly accuses the Jewish community of South Africa of supporting apartheid because “for years the bulk of South Africa’s Jews not only failed to challenge the apartheid system but benefitted and thrived under its protection,” because “many South African Jews not only came to feel secure under the new order but comfortable with it,” and so on. The Jewish Board of Deputies in South Africa is criticized as well for their “declared policy [of] ‘neutrality.'”
It’s not exactly clear why McGreal finds it fitting to single out for opprobrium one group–the Jews–from the wider white Christian population of South Africa. (Of course, many of these white Christians unmentioned by McGreal traced their roots to Great Britain.)
Commenting on a similarly unwarranted focus on Jewish involvement in the slave trade, Pier Larson, an African history scholar and Assistant Professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of History, wrote that
[w]e must question why there is such interest in Jews and the slave trade. Never once in my classroom has anyone asked, for example, if Norwegians or Danes or, for that matter, Christians, participated in the slave trade. Even asking the question implies some special relationship of Jews to enslavement. [But] the vast majority of individuals involved in and benefitting from the slave trade were either Africans or Christian Europeans.
In fact, Jews stood out as firm opponents of apartheid. When Nelson Mandela said in an Oct. 18, 1999 speech that “I owe a debt of honor to the Jews,” he may have been thinking about Helen Suzman, the Jewish anti-apartheid activist and parliamentarian. Or he may have been thinking of the Rivonia Trial in which he was a defendant–not because of Percy Yutar, the Jewish prosecutor whom McGreal made sure to name in his article, but because of the Jewish members of the defense team (Arthur Chaskalson and Joel Joffe) and Mandela’s Jewish co-defendants (Dennis Goldberg, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, Bob Hepple, James Kantor), none of whom are mentioned by McGreal. There are any number of other prominent Jewish anti-apartheid activists to whom Mandela could have been referring–according to some estimates, Jews made up fifty percent of all white activists arrested for their opposition to apartheid, despite representing only 2 percent of the white South African population.
Furthermore, in 1980, the same Board of Deputies criticized by McGreal as “neutral” passed a resolution calling on the Jewish community “to cooperate in securing the immediate amelioration and ultimate removal of all unjust discriminatory laws and practices based on race, creed, or colour.” Five years later, according to a July 13, 1985 Associated Press article (which, ironically, is entitled “South Africa’s Jews take strong stand against apartheid”), the Board of Deputies asserted that it “records its support and commitment to justice, equal opportunity and removal of all provisions in the laws of South Africa which discriminate on grounds of color and race, and rejects apartheid.” Later that year in Johannesburg, 500 Jews attended the first meeting of the new anti-apartheid group Jews for Social Justice.
And in a recent interview, leading anti-apartheid politician Helen Suzman explained that the support she received from Jewish voters was key to her electoral success:
My own electorate, which I represented for 36 years as an anti-apartheid politician, had a considerable number of Jewish voters supporting me throughout my career. This was one of the reasons why I was the only Progressive Party candidate reelected in 1961 after we left the United Party in order to form a more forceful anti-apartheid opposition. (Tara Levy, YNETnews, 1/9/05)
While it is fair to mention the Board of Deputy’s years of neutrality and the Jewish community’s hesitancy to risk backlash by confronting the government, any serious journalistic examination of the Jewish community und er apartheid cannot ignore the Board’s eventual anti-apartheid stand, or the many Jews who struggled for racial equality in South Africa.
In Nelson Mandela’s memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, the famed anti-apartheid activist wrote that he “found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics ….” McGreal’s disingenuous focus on Vera Reitzer and Percy Yutar, and his selective and fragmentary look at Jewish organizations, appears intended to convince Guardian‘s readers of the opposite.
Israel’s links to South Africa
Under the heading “A-bomb technology was Israel’s ‘gift’ to Pretoria,” McGreal claims the Jewish state “provided expertise and technology that was central to South Africa’s development of its nuclear bombs.”
Instead of substantiating his allegation with facts, the journalist relies only on a few vague remarks by former Israeli foreign ministry official Alon Liel about a “completely secret” program, the knowledge of which “was extremely limited to a small number of people….”
There was no need for McGreal to rely so heavily on this anecdote about a “secret” program; much has been said and written publicly about South Africa’s nuclear developement. The Guardian article avoids discussing such information, and with good reason: the facts discredit McGreal’s claim of Israel’s “central” role.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists provides a detailed history of South Africa’s nuclear programs. South Africa’s nuclear program was launched in 1949 and up until 1975 supported by France, the United States and Germany. France supplied reactors. The US supplied a research reactor in 1965 (SAFARI-1) and weapons grade Uranium until 1975. Germany provided technical training at the Nuclear Research Center in Karlsruhe and transferred critical enrichment technology to South Africa.
Although there has been much speculation over Israeli-South African collusion on developing a nuclear weapon, David Albright, who wrote an extensive article on South Africa’s atomic bomb development, concluded that “available evidence argues against significant cooperation” with Israel. He concludes that ARMSCOR, the South African corporation that took over the bomb project in the late 1970s, “is unlikely to have used Israeli assistance in developing its nuclear devices.” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1994)
While evidence of European involvement in South Africa’s enrichment programs has been exposed, significant international links–Israeli or otherwise–to South Africa’s nuclear weapons program have not. F.W. de Klerk, former President of South Africa, admitted that South Africa had nuclear weapons, but asserted that South Africa never cooperated with others on its weapons program.
South African Arms
McGreal not only accuses Israel of building South Africa’s nuclear program, but also of creating the country’s arms industry in general. Israel “created the South African arms industry. After 1976, there was a love affair between the security establishments of the two countries and their armies,” he quotes Alon Liel saying. Again, McGreal relies on an empty declaration, without providing any actual evidence documenting Israel’s contribution to South Africa’s arms industry.
Although Israel and South Africa did cooperate in some areas of defense, McGreal’s focus on this connection grossly distorts the larger picture and conveniently ignores the primary suppliers for South Africa’s military.
The following is a sampling of the detailed list of arms supplies to South Africa provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI):
|UK||14 Westland Wasp helicopters supplied in 1973 and 1974|
|France||38 Mirage fighter aircraft supplied in 1974 and 1975|
|Jordan||717 Tigercat missiles suppplied in 1974|
|Italy||80 military aircraft supplied in 1974|
|UK||41 Centurian tanks supplied in 1974|
|France||48 AS-12 air to surface missiles supplied in 1975|
|France||2 submarines supplied in 1975|
|France||2040 air to surface missiles supplied between 1976-1983|
|Italy||96 Impala counter insurgency equipment supplied between 1976-1983|
|Spain||60 centurion tanks supplied in 1979|
SIPRI’s yearbook describes Israel’s major contributions during that time period as limited to a dozen patrol boats.
The SIPRI Yearbook for 1985 reports that France, West Germany and UK were the only countries listed as supplying SA with military equipment in 1984. Between 1963 and 1975 the largest suppliers of arms to South Africa was in order: France, UK, USA, West Germany.
Similar assessments have been provided by UNESCO and other sources.
While McGreal disregards the massive lethal weaponry supplied by European and Middle Eastern states (like Jordan) that was used to suppress resistance groups, he nonetheless deems it important to mention a kibbutz having sold anti-riot vehicles to South Africa.
It is far beyond the scope of this piece to delve into the complex web of companies and international subsidiaries that formed the South African arms industry, but it is clear that the majority of companies involved had European (especially British) and American connections.
SIPRI’s Signe Landgren wrote extensively in his study Embargo Disimplemented: South Africa’s Military Industry about the manner in which South Africa skirted the arms embargo imposed on it. (See also Susan Willett, “Open Arms for the Prodigal Son?: The Future of South Africa’s Arms Trade Policies,” African Defence Review, 1994.) While noting that there was some Israeli involvement in designing certain weapons, Landgren writes that “the aircraft industry evolved with French and British aid although structured around US and Italian designs … the nuclear industry was based on technology transfer from the United States, France and Germany; military vehicles were based on upgraded British and French models and; electronics and communications technologies were developed with the help of British and US companies based in South Africa.”
This hardly suggests that Israel was the primary or even the dominant supplier of military designs and technology to South Africa.
But ultimately, military supplies represent only part of the picture of support for the Apartheid regime. In his narrow focus on Israel and South Africa’s Jewish community, McGreal completely ignores the extensive trade, in particular the oil supplied by Arab gulf states, without which the South African regime could not have survived.
The International Monetary Fund published statistics on trade with South Africa which show Israel’s trade was minuscule in comparison to European nations and Arab oil exporting states.
Arab oil exporting countries
Similarly, foreign investment was a major source of support to the regime. According to one source, Arab countries accounted for one third of the foreign investment in South Africa, totaling over 9 billion dollars. (Middle East Review, Summer 1985)Portrayal of Israel, Israelis and Zionism as Racist
McGreal repeatedly attacks the Jewish State and its Jewish citizens as racist practitioners of apartheid. He quotes Ronnie Kasrils, an Jewish anti-apartheid activist serving as Minister of Intelligence for South Africa. In an attack on the very concept of Jewish self-determination in their homeland, Kasrils asserts that “Israelis claim that they are the chosen people, the elect of God, and find a biblical justification for their racism and Zionist exclusivity,” adding that “[t]his is just like the Afrikaners of apartheid South Africa.”
McGreal himself also shows contempt for Zionism, suggesting that the idea of Jewish self-determination was cynically usurped from the anti-apartheid struggle (by those same Jews whom the author paints as complicit in apartheid):
Nowadays, the language of the anti-apartheid struggle has found favour with the Jewish establishment as a means of defending Israel. South Africa’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, has called Zionism the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people” and invoked the terminology of Pretoria’s policies to uplift “previously disadvantaged” black people. “Israel is an affirmative-action state set up to protect Jews from genocide. We are previously disadvantaged and we can’t rely on the goodwill of the world,” he said
Of course, describing Zionism as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people” is not merely a current fashion as described by one rabbi. It is the accepted definition of the word (see, for example, American Heritage and Miriam-Webster dictionaries), and is concept that long predates apartheid.
If there are any lingering doubts about McGreal’s views on the existence of a Jewish state, the journalist disposes of them when he describes the two-state solution as akin to apartheid: “[O]ver the past decade [Israelis] have come to support the creation of a Palestinian state as a means of ridding themselves of responsibility from the bulk of Arabs. Separation. Apartheid.”
To convince his readers that Israeli Jews are especially racist, the author employs outright falsehoods along with selectively highlighting atypical, extreme individuals.
For example, he focuses on the late Israeli Member of Knesset Rehavam Ze’evi, whose political party has advocated the transfer of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and then grossly exaggerates the extent of public support for this view. McGreal claims that 70 Knesset members backed a bill to memorialize the assassinated lawmaker and “perpetuate his ideas.” But the law memorializing Ze’evi, passed by 43 MKs (not 70, as McGreal writes), and the initators of the bill explicitly assured voters that it did not perpetuate the idea of “transfer”(Nina Gilbert, Jerusalem Post, 7/12/05). The journalist also claims that “there was a time when large numbers of Israelis agreed with Ze’evi,” despite the fact that Ze’evi’s party, Moledet, never managed on its own to win more than 3 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
When McGreal finally allows one paragraph to relay Alon Liel’s argument that “[t]he existential problems of Israel were real,” and that the country’s policies were “not … built on racism” but were mainly “security-oriented,” the journalist turns over the following three paragraphs to Author Goldreich, a critic who chides Liel and claims Israel’s Six Day War was merely a land grab rather than a war for surviva l:
“It’s a gross distortion. I’m surprised at Liel. In 1967, in the six day war, in this climate of euphoria – by intent, not by will of God or accident – the Israeli government occupied the territories of the West Bank and Gaza with a captive Palestinian population obviously in order to extend the area of Israel and to push the borders more distant from where they were,” [Goldreich] says.
Goldreich then claims Israel ignored his pleas to negotiate with the Palestinians because “the government wanted territory more than it wanted security.” Both Goldreich and McGreal–the Guardian‘s Middle East “expert”–appear to have forgotten that the Arab leadership made clear shortly after the war that negotiation was not an option. “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it,” the infamous Khartoum Resolutions declared, even though Israel had offered to return most of the land it conquered.
Selective Representatives of South African Jewry
It is instructive to look at whom McGreal relies upon to support his comparison of Israel to Apartheid South Africa. He includes ample quotes from Kasrils, who headed a petition campaign describing “Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the suppression of the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination” as the cause of the conflict. Finding a Jew to deliver the harshest denunciations of Israel is a typical tactic of anti-Zionist polemicists.
But McGreal excludes or misrepresents the views of prominent anti-apartheid activists and others whose message is not consonant with his polemic.
For example, although the article makes sure to mention Kasrils’ anti-Israel petition, it ignores completely the letter signed by several prominent South African anti-Apartheid activists, including Bob Hepple and Joel Joffe, stating that
we reject this parallel [between Israel and apartheid]. Israel may adopt policies with which we disagree, but the institutions of social democratic Israel do not bear comparison with the authoritarian and racist structures of apartheid South Africa. To equate this with Israel distorts the historical record.
(The letter was published in McGreal’s own newspaper, the Guardian, in May 2005.)
And Alon Liel, whose criticisms of Israel were freely quoted by McGreal, had also argued a few years earlier that the comparison of Israel to apartheid is specious. McGreal apparently found this viewpoint inconvenient to his advocacy; like other opinions and facts which discredit his apartheid comparison, it was left unmentioned.
The second installment of McGreal’s apartheid feature, like the first, departs from the journalistic principles encoded in both the UK Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice and the Guardian‘s own Editorial Code. According to these guidelines, both of which the Guardian purports to follow, McGreals errors and omissions require prompt and prominent corrections. Check back to see if the newspaper complies with its standards.