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Israel at crossroads conjures ghosts of SA



D was 13 years old, a Barmitzvah boy, when his family had to leave South Africa, and they immigrated to Israel. Now, those voices and sights are coming back to him.

“Although we lived in Cape Town, seemingly far from the riots in Soweto, it spread throughout the country,” he says. “My father worked in the city, there was a fear of leaving the house, of going to work. There was a feeling of a siege, of the collapse of our whole world.”

The Jews of South Africa were seen as part of white rule. When the apartheid regime began to collapse, they were caught on the wrong side of history.

South Africa, a kind of paradise for white citizens including Jews, began to collapse around them. When this happens to the Jews, a persecuted people who fled from exile to exile for thousands of years, it stirs up old demons.

The possibility of rapid degeneration into chaos and anarchy shook the country’s Jews. The fear that at any moment the black majority might lose their fear, stop obeying, and take over the government and the whites by force, grew stronger. D’s family didn’t hesitate too much. One day, they made aliya.

Today, 44 years later, those days of horror creep back into D’s soul. He’s already a veteran Israeli, 57 years old, with a family of his own. The nightmares that afflict him now are different from those that afflict millions of liberal citizens in Israel today. The fact that he had already gone through this experience once, in his previous homeland, gives D a premium package of nightmares.

And one more thing: D was, until recently, the head of a division in the Mossad for special duties (the equivalent to a general in the Israel Defense Forces). His wasn’t “another” branch, but the department of “Caesarea”, the combat branch of the Mossad. His whole mature life, D fought in the dark for the fortification and defence of Israel.

He didn’t waste time in white-collar positions, of which there are quite a few in the Mossad. He worked only in the field, in hair-raising operations and personal combat, deep in hostile territories. Always in the most dangerous position, at the tip of the bayonet that Israel built to guarantee that “never again” would Jews have to face a Holocaust.

And in all these years, he wasn’t afraid, but he is today. It’s not a physical fear. It’s the ancient, primal fear which repeats itself with chilling frequency, especially among Jews – the fear of becoming a refugee, of losing the homeland again. Fear for the fate of his country and his children.

There are many differences between what happened in South Africa and what’s happening in Israel today. There’s no apartheid in Israel, but there was in South Africa. Israel isn’t isolated and marginalised in the world, South Africa was. Still, the similarities are chilling.

“The fear of the Jews at the time,” says D, “didn’t materialise immediately. The regime fell, and democracy was established. But the deterioration began and didn’t stop. The state crumbled because of corruption, mismanagement, the appointment of cronies, and affirmative action. Those who didn’t leave themselves, sent their children out of the country and remained alone. Most of the Jews didn’t immigrate to Israel but preferred Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Our family preferred Israel.

“I feel exactly what my parents felt then. I ask myself if this place promises a good future for my children. I don’t worry about myself. These processes mature slowly. I assume that in the next 10, 20 years it will still be possible to manage here, for those who have the means, assuming that they keep their opinions to themselves and don’t speak out against the government. But one day, my children will wake up and find out that they are in South Africa. And I fear that it may be too late.”

Isn’t he’ exaggerating? “We’ll know in the future,” D says, “but the feeling is one of tragedy. When I was 13, we had to leave a homeland that I loved very much. We had an excellent life there. Everything you dream of and more. But there was no personal security and no security in the future. That’s exactly what’s happening here now. It’s such a sad déjà vu. Even then [my parents] were debating whether to take money out of the country or not, whether to apply for foreign citizenship or not, whether to prepare a refuge or not. It’s terrible.”

When you look at D, it’s hard to guess that this is the person who headed the legendary operational body of the best intelligence organisation in the world.

“There aren’t many you can point to and say outright that they hold Israel’s security on their backs,” says Tamir Pardo, the former head of the Mossad, who appointed D. “D is one of those few. This man fought in the organisation for decades. As someone who accompanied him for many years in a variety of roles, I can testify that very few of the people I have met in my life were braver, more reliable, more honest, more moral, or more than D.”

“My parents sacrificed their quality of life for the sake of their children’s future. Now my mother is heartbroken,” D says. “The future she wanted to give her children is crumbling before her eyes. Everything has to begin from the beginning, for the sake of the grandchildren.

“My parents had the option of immigrating to the United Kingdom, the United States, anywhere. My father had a green card. They believed in Israel, and were Zionists.”

Asked whether he thinks Israel could become a failed state, he says, “Obviously. We can already see the beginning of it. As democracy weakens, so will the economy, the good forces will leave, the cost of money will rise, investments will disappear, corruption will continue to spread and poison every good part, the economy will shrink, and all the achievements of past decades will be erased. Look at the doctors leaving. The disappearance of high-tech investments. We’re already there. This government has declared war on the public service, on public servants, on civil society, on the gatekeepers.”

This man faced countless extreme situations during his life. He brought the Iranian nuclear archive to Israel, he managed the Mossad’s operations around the world for years, he shouldn’t panic easily.

“I’m a realist,” he says. “I see the South African process here – irreversible damage to the education system, academia, health. I see productive society kneeling under the burden of the non-productive sectors, which it finances through transfer payments. I fear that the fate of the liberal-democratic Israelis in Israel will be similar to the fate of the whites in South Africa. In this respect, our situation is just as bad. The coup d’état is on steroids. The rate of deterioration and the spread of decay is accelerating. And in addition to all this, there are external enemies and threats, which make everything more toxic and dangerous.”

Asked to say something optimistic, he points to his patriotism. “Israel is at a fateful crossroads. It has to choose between continuing the path as a Jewish and democratic state, a vibrant and free liberal democracy, economic success, and light upon the nations, and deterioration into a closed, autocratic, and gloomy state. I’m an Israeli patriot. I can assure you that I’ll do everything I can so that the state chooses the first option.”

  • Ben Caspit is one of Israel’s top columnists, a senior journalist on Maariv Hashavua (the weekly edition) and author of “Netanyahu: The Road to Power”. This article was published with Caspit and Maariv’s
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  1. Mosh

    August 10, 2023 at 11:01 pm

    Disappointing to see this SAJR taking side against Israeli legitimate government by hosting only anti Bibi and anti reform opinions. Ben Caspit is a well known for his incitement and hate towards Bibi.
    You should allow opinions of others that support Bibi and his government appear here

  2. Graham Celine

    August 14, 2023 at 1:54 pm

    Finally this publication prints some reality of the awful and unjust path the Netanyahu government is leading the country. The government does not have the right to destroy everything the Jewish nation holds dear and to delegitimize the majority of the people including jews in the diaspora. Netanyahu is creating a dictatorship and its time the Jewish people who support Israel realize the disastrous road this is on.

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