Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Israel cannot keep silent in the face of apartheid": Israel and South Africa, 1961-1967

"This country [Israel] cannot keep silent in the face of the policy [of apartheid]. Not only absolute justice but also the essential interests of our policy demand that we take a stand." The words of Chaim Yahil, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in a letter to Israel's minister in Pretoria, Simcha Pratt, in August 1961, reflect the main theme of a new collection of documents on our website – the influence of Israel's opposition to apartheid on relations with South Africa in the 1960s. It includes 67 scanned documents, four in English, a translation of the introduction and the list of documents with summaries, and photographs. The rest of the documents are on our Hebrew website.

Israel's ties with a country which had officially adopted a policy of racial discrimination harmed its image and served Arab propaganda. However the documents here show that at this time relations with South Africa were tense and problematic, due to Israel's strong stand against apartheid. This stand reflected both desire for closer relations with the newly independent states of black Africa, and opposition in principle to racial separation, a policy especially led by Foreign Minister Golda Meir.

Golda Meir and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with the president of Upper Volta, Maurice Yameogo, in Jerusalem, July 1961. (Government Press Office)
However, Israel's anti-apartheid stand had to be moderated due to concern for the large Jewish community in South Africa. Israel thus walked a tightrope, on the one hand acting against South Africa in international forums and the UN, but on the other, maintaining diplomatic relations with it. Criticism by the South African Jews, who did not appreciate the difficulties of Israel's position, aroused considerable resentment. Simcha Pratt even called the Jews "present day Marranos" because of their fear of the South African government and the leaders of the ruling National Party with its pro-Nazi past. He criticized the lack of self-respect of the Jewish leaders who were willing to humiliate themselves completely "in order to please a government which supports racism and to criticize Israel."

Helen Suzman, a leading Jewish opponent of apartheid. (Wikimedia Commons)
Many opponents of apartheid in South Africa were Jewish, and an important episode in this story shown here was the "Rivonia Trial." In 1964, the leaders of the African National Congress, among them Nelson Mandela, were tried for their underground activities. Six of the 18 accused were Jewish. The ISA has already published some documents on this trial after Mandela's death last year in its publication on "Israel and Nelson Mandela – A Cry for Freedom," which we wrote about here and here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Just Published: A New Book on Menachem Begin from the Israel State Archives

A recent survey showed that Israelis regard Menachem Begin, Israel's sixth prime minister from 1977 until 1983, as one of their greatest leaders, second only to David Ben-Gurion.

We announce today the publication of a new book on Menachem Begin in the ISA series on Israel's late prime ministers and presidents – a collection of letters, papers and speeches edited by Professor Arye Naor (who was Cabinet Secretary at the time) and Dr. Arnon Lammfromm of the ISA. The historical introductions and the 191 documents in the book, most of them published for the first time, show Begin's career from his early years in the Betar movement in Poland, until his retirement from public life following the war in Lebanon and his wife's death. The book is in Hebrew, with a short introduction in English.


Menachem Begin was born in 1913 in Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), and came to Palestine during World War II. After leading the IZL (Irgun Zvai Leumi) underground movement against British rule before the establishment of the State of Israel, he became the leader of the Herut party. He came to power only after many years in opposition, although he served as a minister without portfolio in the government of Levi Eshkol during the Six day War.

Begin is also remembered for his concern for Jewish tradition, his attempts to help the disadvantaged sections of Israel's population, and of course his contribution to peace with Egypt. The ISA recently issued a digital online publication to mark the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in March 1979, which includes many documents, photographs and video clips of Menachem Begin together with Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat, the three leaders who changed the history of the Middle East. An English version is also available on our website.

Aliza and Menachem Begin on their way to the signing ceremony in Washington, March 1979
(Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office)
To mark the 100th birthday of Menachem Begin, we also published here a collection of links to other blogs in English on different aspects of Begin's career.

To order the commemorative volume, please contact Leeya Ben-Tsvi at (972)-2-5680633 or leya@archives.gov.il.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

May 8, 1945 - VE Day: Lieutenant Chaim Herzog's Letter

On May 7, 1945, at 2am--after 5 years, 8 months and one week of bloodshed in the Second World War bloodshed--Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in the city of Reims in France. The surrender became formal in Western Europe on May 8. That day, close to midnight, another surrender ceremony took place, in accordance with Soviet demands, in Berlin. This difference in dates is the reason that VE day is celebrated in the USA and Western Europe on May 8, while it is celebrated in former Soviet Union states (and in Israel, on the same dateline as Moscow) on May 9. Thus ended the Second World War in Europe. (The war in the Far East would end in mid-August that year.) This costliest, most deadly conflict in history took the lives of more than 60 million, including 6 million Jews, who were murdered in the Holocaust.

At the same time Chaim (Vivian) Herzog, son of the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Isaac (Yitzhak) Herzog, and future President of the State of Israel, served as an intelligence officer in the British 32nd Guards brigade of the British Second Army, which took part in conquering Northwestern Germany. In autumn 1944, Herzog met his relatives who survived the Nazi occupation in Paris, not including his cousin Annette Goldberg who was deported to Auschwitz. Herzog hoped (in vain) that she might have survived. In May 1945, Herzog visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a short time after it was liberated by the British Army. On May 5, Herzog was present at the surrender of the German forces between the rivers of the Weser and the Elbe to the British 30th Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks.

Chaim Herzog in British Army uniform, 1944
Photographer: David Eldan, Government Press Office
On the morning of May 8, Herzog wrote to his parents and his brother Yaakov (later a senior diplomat in Israel's Foreign Service and the director-general of Israel's Prime Minister's Office) expressing his happiness and telling them about his latest experiences, including his participation in the surrender of the German army.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Israel's 66th Independence - Gush Etzion's Last Stand

On the occasion of Israel's 66th Independence Day and in commemoration of the fall of Gush Etzion on May 13, 1948, a day before Israel's declaration of independence, we invite you to re-visit our post from last year on that subject.