The ‘romance’ between the pioneering Jews in Southern Africa and the State of Israel, goes back long before Israel’s independence in 1948. Stories reveal that while immigrant Jews from mostly Eastern Europe were living in tents in dusty dreary mining camps in Kimberley looking for diamonds and later prospecting for gold in Johannesburg during the late nineteenth century - and with hardly enough money to feed and house a family - they would still set aside every month “a few shillings” for the Jews in Ottoman Palestine. Struggling to eke out a living, they found it within themselves, to sacrifice for their fellow Jews struggling to build a Jewish Homeland. “What is my struggle next to the struggle of my People,” was a sentiment often expressed and that began the LINK between Israel and South Africa today.
When the Zionist movement was established in South Africa in the last decade of the 19th century, a South African nation had not yet been born. That would only come about in 1910 – with the Union of South Africa, and by that time, Israel was still a dream.
However, South African Jews such as the Gennosaw family from Johannesburg, invested in Ottoman Palestine and then immigrated in the mid-1920s. Their daughter, Nehama, was a founding member of Kibbutz Nir David in the Galilee and who helped establish the Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatzair in South Africa in the 1930s.
Many of the graduates of that movement emigrated to Israel. Another graduate of that movement is Sir Aaron Klug, who won the 1982 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and who is today serves on the Board of Governors of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
The name of kibbutz Nir David tells a story of the strong link between Israel and South Africa. The kibbutz was named after David Wolffson, President of the World Zionist Organisation who in 1906, visited South Africa. This visit transformed into a triumph and became the foundation stone of the South African Zionist Federation. One man who heard him speak was Nechama Gennosaw’s father that led him to sell a valuable diamond that he had discovered, and which he used to emigrate to Ottoman Palestine and to buy land.
Apart from Hashomer Hatzair, what was to become the biggest youth movement in South Africa and where many members would emerge as opponents in the struggle against Apartheid, was Habonim that was founded in 1930 by Norman Lourie. The impact on this movement had on Israel is enormous. Only some of the kibbutzim in Israel that are associated with this South African movement are: Tzora, Yizreel, Kfar Blum, Kfar Hanasi, Tuval, Ma’ayan Bruch, Nir Eliyahu, Habonim and many others.
The hotel, Dolphin Village on kibbutz Shavei Zion near Nahariya was established by Norman together with South African investors. The hotel became the playground of the rich and famous in the 1950s and 1960s.
Israel’s early presidents Chaim Weitzmann and Yizchak Ben Zvi, mixed socially with the likes of Danny Kaye, Sophia Loren, Ralph Richardson, Israeli singer and actress Daliah Lavi, who was born on Shavei Zion.
The new exclusive boutique hotel in Tel Aviv off Rothschild Boulevard, called ‘The Norman’, is named after Norman Lourie.
Describe as “one of a kind”, it is named after a man who truly was: “one of a kind.”
There are good reasons why there are so many streets in Israel named after South African cities and even a former statesman. Do not be surprised walking around Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Eilat and seeing the names of streets such as Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Durban and Jan Smuts Boulevard. There is even a kibbutz (collective community) named after Jan Smuts – Ramat Yohanan, who was an ardent Zionist sympathizer and one of the first politicians who supported the creation of the State of Israel. (see more)
Picture: Street named after Cape Town in Afrikaans in Ashkelon, a city rebuilt in the 1950s by South Africans.
South Africa was among the 33 states that voted in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution, recommending the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. On 24 May 1948, nine days after Israel’s declaration of independence, the South African government of Jan Smuts, granted de facto recognition to the State of Israel, just two days before his United Party was voted out of office and replaced by the pro-Apartheid National Party whose many members were virulently anti-Semitic and had been pro-Nazi Germany.
South Africa was the seventh nation to recognise the new Jewish state. On 14 May 1949, South Africa granted de jure recognition to the State of Israel.
Diplomatic relations between Israel and South Africa began in 1949, when Israel established a consulate-general in Pretoria, which was raised to the status of a legation in November 1950. However, South Africa had no direct diplomatic representation in Israel (it being represented by the United Kingdom) until South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961, whereupon it sent a consul-general to Tel Aviv.
Despite a history of animus towards the country’s Jewish community, the new Nationalist Party South African Prime Minister D.F. Malan, visited Israel in 1953. Back in 1937, Malan, as leader of the Opposition said in the South African Parliament:
“If the Jew in South Africa gets more power than he now has and becomes more powerful economically, then I ask, what future is there for the rest of the people in South Africa.” (Sunday Times, 31 October 1937)
From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, Israel engaged in a massive diplomatic campaign in Sub-Saharan Africa, befriending the young African nations just liberated from colonial rule. Israel identified with this experience having shaken off the shackles of British mandatory rule and defended itself from attack by its Arab neighbours, who as Azzam Pasha, General Secretary of the Arab League told reporters on May 20, 1948, would “Drive the Jews into the sea.”
That never happened, and some of the best marinas in the Mediterranean today are in Israel – Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Ashkelon and Eilat. The word out to South African yachtsman is:
“When you exit the Suez Canal: ‘Turn Right’ – you can’t go wrong until you see someone on a pier offer you a Maccabi Beer.” LeChaim! (Cheers)
While still during the Apartheid era, many in Israel together with fellow South Africans worked strenuously to prepare for a future majority rule South Africa.
The feeling was that future Black leaders having been denied the same education and opportunities as the minority whites, were not trained to take up the leadership positions to run the country – from government to mayors of cities and towns.
Israel offered to address this issue.
Two major initiatives – the Beit Beryl “Community Development & Leadership Training’ Project and the HEATID programme – were specifically designed for this purpose.
The Beit Beryl project involved such personalities as actress Jane Fonda, her late husband the Democratic senator, Tom Hayden, Ethel Kennedy, Yossi Beilin, former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel, ANC activist Arthur Goldreich, and Anglovaal’s Clive Menell, who paved the way to bring on board Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Together with many Israelis, led by Professor Shimshon Zelnicker, they recruited candidates in South Africa and brought them to Israel. After Nelson Mandela became president, the project, ‘came out from the cold” and continued in the open.
Some 29 graduates of this programme became mayors of South African cities and towns. (read more. Link: ‘Coming Out Of The Cold’.)
The other programme, sponsored by South Africa Mizrachi, HEATID (The Future), provided four-week intense leadership and entrepreneurial courses in Israel for South Africans. The emphasis here was exclusively training future Black business leaders.
Israel’s outreach to Africa began long before there was an Independent Israel or a democratically elected South Africa.
In his book Altneuland, published in 1902, Theodore Herzl , the “Father of Modern Israel’, wrote that “once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.” Herzl never lived to see either but said that which applied to both South Africa and Israel, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
It was Golda Meir, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who implemented the principles of Herzl in Africa.
Through her direction in the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of Israeli experts were sent to 33 independent African states, offering aid and technical knowledge in fields such as military training, regional planning, agriculture, medicine, legal work, and community services.
(see more link)
At the same time, thousands of Africans traveled to Israel to participate in training programs. The relationship of Israel with African countries during the late fifties through the sixties, became known as the “Golden Age” or what some have dubbed, the “Golda Age”, after Israel’s then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Golda Meir.
Almost immediately after the redemption of the Jewish people in 1948, Herzl’s interest in helping the Africans was taken up by the leaders of Israel, most notably – Golda Meir. She believed that the lessons learned by Israelis could be passed on to Africans who, particularly during the 1950s, were engaged in the same process of nation building. “Like them,” she said, “we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together, and how to defend ourselves.”
In November 1956, the first Israeli embassy in Africa opened in Accra, Ghana. In 1958, Golda Meir toured West Africa (the first in a series of several extended visits), attending the first anniversary of Ghana’s independence and meeting the new African leaders of the Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Nigeria.
Following its strengthening of relations with the newly independent states of sub-Saharan Africa, and its abhorrence of racial ideologies, Israel took a critical stance on the question of Apartheid. Israel joined in condemning apartheid at the United Nations and voted to enforce sanctions against South Africa. On October 11, 1961, Israel voted for the General Assembly censure of Eric Louw‘s speech defending apartheid.
In 1963, Israel informed the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid that it had taken steps to comply with the military boycott of Apartheid South Africa and recalled its ambassador. Israeli leaders publicly condemned Apartheid throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, although it maintained contact with South Africa through a low-level diplomatic mission in Pretoria and through France, a mutual ally.
Israel continued a policy of active friendship with black Africa throughout the 1960s and offered technical and economic aid. READ MORE
Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequent occupation of the Sinai and West Bank alienated it diplomatically from much of the Third World and African states. Despite Israel defending itself from Arab countries determined to crush the Jewish State, Black nationalist movements then began to see Israel as a colonial state.
In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) instituted an oil embargo against Western nations as way of punishing them for supporting Israel; in doing so, OPEC sought support from other international groups to strengthen its impact. Arab states and black African nations formed a working alliance at the United Nations that sought both to criticize the two countries – Israel and South Africa – with UN resolutions. Due to this alliance with the Arab world, many African countries broke off relations with Israel.
While Israel is widely accused of having been out of step with international trends by trading with South Africa in the eighties, the facts tell a different story. In 1986, during the height of Apartheid, South Africa’s main trading partners were, U.S.A. – $3.4 billion, Japan – $2.9 billion, Germany – $2.8 billion, U.K. – $2.6 billion. In defending Britain’s position at the time, Sir Alec Douglas Home referred to Britain’s heavy investment in South Africa and the strategic importance of naval facilities at Simonstown. By comparison, Israel’s puny $200 million total trade with South Africa amounted to less than 1% of South Africa’s total trade.
The Apartheid regime could have been brought to its knees much earlier, had its oil supply been cut off. All its $2 billion annual oil import came from Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia. A $1 billion barter deal was concluded with Iran… READ MORE
The relationship between South Africa and Israel became more complicated in the new millennium with the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance met in Durban, South Africa from August 31 to September 8, 2001.
The noble goals of the Conference were undermined by hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-Israel political agendas, prompting both Israel and the United States to withdraw their delegations from the conference. Participants revived the scurrilous charge that “Zionism is Racism” and used false and hostile allegations to delegitimize Israel.
South African have been credited with having introduced tennis, rugby, cricket, lawn bowls and squash to Israel. They built the first tennis and squash courts as well as the early bowling greens. The founder of the Israel Tennis Center, Dr. Ian Froman, a dentist from Johannesburg, received the 1989 Israel Prize Israel’s highest civilian award for his contribution to sport and inspiring a “social revolution.”
South Africans with means who settled in what was then British Mandate for Palestine in the twenties and thirties of the 20th century, conceived the idea of “pioneering with capital”.
Way back in 1922, the South African Palestine Enterprises (Binyan) was formed with its headquarters in Tel Aviv. It became known as Africa Palestine Investments (API), and today is known as Israel Africa Investments Ltd. A massive behemoth today, Africa Israel Investments Ltd. is an international holding and investment company based in Yehud, Israel.
Since then, South Africans have contributed in nearly every field of commercial activity from manufacturing, pioneering the insurance industry to Israel’s highly sophisticated financial service industry.
Today the trade between Israel and South Africa is blooming. While in the past it focused on coal and diamonds, today the relations are more 21st century based focusing on state-of-the-art technology in agriculture, hydrology, pharmaceuticals and Cyber-security.
With terrorism, a global threat to every nation, Israel’s cutting-edge exceptionalism in this field is sought by most countries in the world – many of whom in Africa.
South Africa and Israel have a strong relationship in the medical field whereby South African doctors contributed impressively in pioneering modern medicine in Israel and where today, many doctors in Israel are contributing to health issues in South Africa, most notably with regards to controlling the AIDS virus. (Read more…..)
The first successful heart transplant in Israel was performed by Prof. Joseph (Joe) Borman, originally from Johannesburg and who was a great friend of Prof. Christiaan Barnard, the famous South African surgeon who performed the world’s first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town.
A Special Breed
We reveal here the personal stories of a feisty breed of pioneers who in their youth, left the cities and dorps (small towns) of South Africa to respond to the call to participate in the most exciting adventure of the 20th century for a Jew – the rebirth of the Nation of Israel in the Land of Israel.
They came to build – and when necessary sometimes to fight – in pursuance of that dream in the hope that future generations in Israel would live and prosper in peace and security.
Whilst their dreams of statehood have been won, their hopes for peace, still seem to elude our grasp.
Nerveless ‘it is a work in progress’ and we look longingly to the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy from the Book of Isaiah (2:4):
“….and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”