Former Israeli ambassadors to SA fight for the left
Three former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa have put their names and faces to an online campaign supporting left-wing Israeli political party Meretz.
Circulated via Facebook and on Twitter, the tag line reads, “We were ambassadors in South Africa. We won’t let it happen here too. That’s why we support Meretz.”
Meretz is one of 39 parties competing next month in the fourth parliamentary elections to be held in Israel in less than two years. The party is projected to win four out of 120 Knesset (parliament) seats. Members see themselves as political representatives of the Israeli peace movement.
While not explicitly saying “apartheid”, the word “it” in the campaign is understood to mean exactly that, according to Dr Alon Liel, the former head of the South African desk in the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs and ambassador to South Africa from 1992 to 1994.
“Only very recently did Meretz start using the term ‘apartheid’ as a means to differentiate itself from the Labour Party,” he said. “But I have always supported the term when applied to what’s happening in the West Bank where there are two legal systems. One applies to half a million Israeli settlers and the other applies to two-and-a-half million Palestinians who live on the same piece of land.”
Liel was appointed ambassador during the South African transition from apartheid to democracy. Labour party leader Yitzhak Rabin had just been elected prime minister for the second time, and Jerusalem’s foreign policy objected to apartheid and supported Israel normalising relations with the African National Congress (ANC) leadership.
“We were really, really worried that the new South Africa, controlled by the ANC, would break off diplomatic relations with Israel because of our very intimate relationship with apartheid South Africa,” Liel says.
“I was sent to save the relationship. Six days after I arrived, I met Mandela, even before I handed my credentials to [SA president FW] de Klerk. During that time, relations between our countries were not just normal, but good.”
Israel was secretly negotiating the Oslo Agreement with the Palestinians at the time, and the conversation was about exchanging land for peace and withdrawing from the West Bank. The official policy supported a two-state solution.
“South Africa had its turning point in 1994, when Mandela was appointed. We had our turning point when Israel officially dropped the two-state policy about 10 years ago and replaced it with annexation. Once this happened, I could no longer support the government. For me, annexation is the end of Zionism and democracy.”
While he’s used to being called a traitor, Liel insists he’s still a very loyal Israeli.
“Like apartheid South Africa and post-apartheid South Africa, it’s the same country. So, too, is Israel of Oslo and Israel of annexation the same country. But there was a U-turn in policy. I couldn’t be an ambassador for Israel today.”
Neither could Ilan Baruch who served a decade later, from 2005 to 2008, during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.
“At the time, there was good reason to believe we could actually work out some reconciliation between South Africa and Israel as Mbeki was impressed with the bold steps taken by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the context of disengagement,” said Baruch.
“I think post-apartheid South Africa was looking at our conflict from the point of view of conflict resolution, which wasn’t the case with Israel. Israel succeeded – unfortunately – in bringing the Palestinians to the brink of defeat. Had it been otherwise, had we seen international players apply pressure on the two parties to depart from their original positions and be prepared to take a different course, that would have given us a chance at peace making. But that was not the case. I don’t judge South Africa as the party that spoilt any opportunity for peace; I blame South Africa for not applying enough pressure on Israel to make peace an option.”
Baruch also blames Benjamin Netanyahu, who became Israeli prime minister for the second time in 2009 for moving the country further to the right. Two years later, he resigned from the government in protest against the political partnership between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the right-wing Israel Our Home party. Since then he’s been active in civil society in opposition to the government.
A long-time Meretz supporter, Baruch admits that when he was ambassador to Pretoria, he was wrestling between his personal convictions and the desire to serve his country the best he could. That is, he says, “even if the prevailing positions of my government were pretty far away from my own”.
“I want to see Meretz succeed in these upcoming elections. I’m very proud to be supporting a political party that is strong on ideology,” he says.
Another former ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, who served from 2013 to 2017, is also relieved to no longer feel conflicted between his personal and public beliefs.
“After 25 years in which I needed to keep quiet about my opinions, I’m no longer at that point in my life,” he says.
But Lenk says he lent his name to the advert not to make a comment on South Africa or its politics, and certainly not on the Jewish community “who I lived with for four years and have the warmest feelings towards”.
“I think what’s clever about the campaign is its use of words and non-use of words – it leaves a lot open for an audience to read what she/he wants to. The nuance of the word ‘it’ isn’t unintentional. The word ‘apartheid’ isn’t used. The advert is in Hebrew for a domestic Israeli audience. My message is to the Israeli voter.”
Lenk left the Israeli government after returning from Pretoria, initially for a break. But later, he decided to go into the business of capacity building in part because of what he saw it could achieve in South Africa.
“I think in the upcoming Israeli election, very few of us are voting on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. One of the parties that is talking about peace and co-existence in the neighbourhood with the Palestinians is Meretz, and for that reason I support it and think it’s an important voice.”
Says South African-born veteran journalist and Israeli author, Benjamin Pogrund, “I’m surprised that two men who spent several years as ambassadors in South Africa learnt so little that they actually equate Israel with apartheid South Africa.”
The Israeli ministry of foreign affairs declined to comment.
Saluting Zan Swartzberg – one of the 800 who fought for Israel
Zan Swartzberg from Bethlehem in the Free State was one of 800 South African Machal volunteers who heeded Israel’s call for help after it was surrounded by seven armies determined to obliterate it in 1948. He was just 21.
As he celebrated his 94th birthday and the launch of his fourth book this past weekend, he recalled those heady and harrowing days. “My first book is called The Hammers: A Personal Story of the 1948-1949 Israeli War of Independence. It’s called The Hammers because we flew huge American B17 flying fortresses. Three of them, day and night, for weeks on end. In other words, we hammered them, so our official name was The Hammers,” Swartzberg says.
As Israel mourns those lost in defence of the country and to terrorism on Yom Hazikaron, and celebrates its 73rd year of independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the man who was there at the start says the country shouldn’t be taken for granted.
His memories are still vivid of joining thousands of other Machal volunteers in fighting for Israel’s independence, and the enormous stress and challenges they faced.
“Many were World War II veterans, and knew the odds were against us,” says Swartzberg. “An air shuttle service was started to transport volunteers, and I needed to get 100 hours of experience, so I got it on the shuttle flights. Each flight could take only 19 volunteers at a time. The South African government was aware of the volunteers heading off to fight, but turned a blind eye. We should always be grateful for that.”
His latest book, launched on Sunday, is titled I Salute you Sir!. “This is because a few years ago, I got a call late one evening from an Israeli official, inviting me and my wife, Noreen, to celebrate Israel’s independence. He said, ‘Are you Zan Swartzberg? Are you still alive?’ A special meeting was arranged with President Benjamin Netanyahu. And when he saw the ribbons on my windbreaker, he knew exactly who I was. He came and put his hand out and said, ‘I salute you sir’.”
The book tells other fascinating stories. “First, how my father escaped Lithuania, and about the Jew hatred that we as schoolchildren went through in Bethlehem.” It also tells how the Swartzbergs were reunited with their long-lost daughter, and how his brother Joe cheated death – twice.
Speaking at the book launch, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft of the Small Jewish Communities Association described how “Zan [or Zundel which is his full Jewish name], for most of his life has lived in Bethlehem. He remains to this day on his farm proudly named Masada Farm/Loch Katrine Farm in the Bethlehem district.” Swartzberg’s wife, Noreen, describes her husband as a “proud Jew”, which motivated him to name the farm Masada.
Describing Swartzberg as “an ardent Zionist” Silberhaft said, “It’s a remarkable fact that of the approximately 3 000 Jews from around the world who volunteered to fight for the Jewish state in its time of supreme need, more than a quarter came from South Africa, whose Jewish community at the time numbered barely 100 000 souls. Only the United States, whose Jewish population was fifty times larger, produced more volunteers for the cause. Since then, it has always been a matter of great pride to him to be able to claim to have been one of ‘South Africa’s 800’.
“Having obtained an international radio operator’s licence prior to this, Zan joined the Israeli army and became a radio operator and air gunner in the fledgling Israeli Air Force. He was in the air force division from 1948 to 1949, serving in the famed 69th squadron, and was also an instructor in radio telegraphy.
“A number of the 800 South African volunteers went on to achieve considerable fame and success. They included Judge Cecil Margo, who played a key role in the establishment of the Israeli Air Force, anti-apartheid hero Arthur Goldreich, former Woolworths Chief Executive David Susman, and former Johannesburg mayor Eddie Magid.
“After the war, Zan devoted himself to various pursuits. He was a yachtsman, served in the merchant navy, and later in army commandos. In due course, he became a business man and then a farmer. In collaboration with Lorraine Houston, he has become an increasingly prolific author.”
His second book, published in July 2019, was titled Ovamboland Border War: An exercise in Futility, focusing on South Africa’s border war in then South West Africa. The following April, his third book was published about the realisation of his life-long dream of sailing the open sea. Titled Survival, The Voyage of Yacht Black Jed, it told of his yacht trip from East London, South Africa, to Villamoura, Portugal.
To mark the celebration of his 94th birthday, Silberhaft surprised Swartzberg by presenting him with the mittens he wore as a Machalnik. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, I donated my bomber jacket and mittens to the Machal Museum in Israel. I don’t know how he did it, but when he handed me those mittens on my birthday, I was so emotional. The tears poured … I was gobsmacked. And then I asked him to please re-donate them to the museum.”
With less than 10 known Machalniks still alive, Swartzberg feels grateful to have been there and to be able to tell the story of Israel’s miraculous fight to survive. He recalls how while walking in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, Israelis would stop him and thank him for his service to the founding of their country. “They don’t forget what the Machalniks did. I feel so privileged that I played a small part in the birth of a Jewish state.”
- Zan Swartzberg’s books can be bought on Amazon.
SA’s unique connection to Israel makes Israelis feel at home
Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are generally tough days for Israelis in the diaspora as it isn’t easy to experience them properly thousands of kilometres away from Israel.
But in South Africa, many Israelis say it’s easier.
“The first few years in South Africa, I was amazed at how similar Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut felt to how it is in Israel,” says Israeli ambassador Lior Keinan. “I made a point of visiting different communities and schools on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It felt so familiar. They played the same songs and danced the same dances. It was a relief.”
Liat Amar Arran, the local Jewish Agency representative and the director of the Israel Centre, agrees. When she moved here, she thought these particular days would be when she would be most needed with her “personal stories and sense of connection” with Israel. “Instead, I met a community that was already strongly connected and was very involved in commemorating and celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was amazing.”
For South African Jewry, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut showcase their connection with Israel.
“Yom Hazikaron is an incredibly important day when we commemorate those who fell protecting Israel. Without those who have given their lives to keep am Yisrael [the people of Israel] alive, we wouldn’t feel protected here in South Africa,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s really important to realise exactly what the people of Israel have gone through to keep Israel alive.”
For Israelis living here, it’s a lot more personal.
“Being here on Yom Hazikaron has extra special meaning for me,” says Keinan. “I’m fortunate that none of my family has been killed in action. However, one of my best friends who I studied with in high school was killed in the second Lebanon War. Ashi Novik was a South African who moved to Israel. So now, for me to be an ambassador in South Africa, I can look at the memorial of all the South Africans who paid the ultimate price for Israel, and I see the name of my high school friend. When I light a candle for him personally and all those whose names are on the memorial, I feel like I’m closing the circle. I knew him in the past, and now I’m here honouring his memory.”
Habonim Dror Southern Africa shaliach Lior Agiv says learning to appreciate Yom Hazikaron has been a process.
“As a young child, these days of Zikaron and Atzmaut always seemed to be something amorphic. Hearing my father’s stories of all the wars he had taken part in, watching these series and movies on TV, it all remained a bit abstract. As I grew up and my army chapter was getting closer, I started to wonder more about the meaning of these days.
“All these feelings grew much stronger after my army days near Ramallah. Since then, every year, no matter where I’m located, I honour these days by lightning a neshama candle for my fallen friends and try to deepen my knowledge of our wars and fallen ones.”
Batya Shmueli, also a shaliach in South Africa, says, “I was born on the African continent in Ethiopia, and at the age of 11, my family fulfilled our dream of returning to Jerusalem. Returning to Africa as an Israeli to do a mission with my family is closing a huge circle. We will connect with our brothers and sisters and remember the loved ones who fell and sacrificed their lives in various wars for the sake of the people of Israel and future generations,” she says.
“Independence Day is a day in which we stop for a moment and look at the fact that we have a state and a home for the Jewish people,” she says.
Arran says that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed, which is why Yom Hazikaron is felt so keenly. “My good childhood friend, Ariel, was killed in the army,” she says. “My brother-in-law lost his entire unit in a helicopter crash. Everyone knows someone that has been killed.”
Lee Salama, a Habonim shaliach in Cape Town, says, “In officer boot camp in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have a saying, ‘We have to realise that in order for us to be able to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there were people who had to die.’ And then we have this beautiful transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut and celebrating life.”
Says Polovin, “Yom Ha’atzmaut is an incredible celebration of everything Israel has accomplished in its very short 73 years. No matter where you look, Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ showing the way. Whether it’s technology, medical advancements, or even showing the world how to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is at the head of the pack.”
Says Keinan, “The beauty of going straight from the sombre day of Yom Hazikaron to the happy day of Yom Ha’atzmaut shows us that from great pain and sorrow can come the greatest joy. The suffering and pain, and the joy and celebration, are really just two sides of the coin.”
Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film
(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.
Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.
While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.
Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.
Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.
“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.
“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”
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