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When the oppressed become the oppressor

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(source: Sunday Times Review – Jul 18, 2010 12:00 AM – Pg10)

Another View: Israel and the perpetrators of xenophobic violence are guilty of culpable amnesia regarding South Africa, writes Eusebius McKaiser

Human beings have complicated moral psychologies. Sometimes we respond empathetically to the plight of those worse off than ourselves; think of the global response to the earthquake that hit Haiti, for example. At other times, we are oblivious to or even implicated in the suffering of others. Hence the jarring reality of many victims of anti-black racism often ignoring their own experiences of discrimination when engaging in xenophobic attacks or violence against black lesbians. These are violent expressions of culpable amnesia.

States are no different to human beings. They, too, are susceptible to shameful variations in moral judgment. A case in point is the devastating revelations that have surfaced about military ties between Israel and apartheid South Africa in the ’70s. Israel was also guilty of culpable amnesia.

In his brilliant new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s relationship with apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky tells of massive military co-operation between the two countries. A 1976 visit to Israel by Prime Minister John Vorster, for example, helped seal a military deal worth more than $700-million, according to Admiral Binyamin Telem, who was the commander of Israel’s navy during the Yom Kippur War. This trip expanded on an earlier munitions contract worth $100-million.

Such military co-operation was to continue for years, despite a weapons embargo imposed against South Africa by the United Nations in 1977. Israel publicly supported the embargo but acted otherwise privately. In the '80s, for example, Israel and the South African Defence Force jointly researched missiles with nuclear capability. Israel also updated SA's fighter jets in Israel. These updates were worth about $2-billion, according to correspondence between an Armscor mission in Tel Aviv and SADF chief Constand Viljoen.

Exports to South Africa, ranging from rifles and anti-riot equipment to tanks and aircraft, amounted to about $600-million between the mid-'70s and early '90s. These claims are based on declassified documents that the author had patiently fought to see in terms of legislation governing access to information. In addition, he interviewed most of the key actors within the military bureaucracies of both South Africa and Israel, including former minister of defence General Magnus Malan, former SADF head General Jannie Geldenhuys and former mining minister Fanie Botha. Many of the key actors on the Israeli side also spoke to the author, particularly after he produced declassified documents and recorded oral sources. What are the moral implications of these revelations? It is important to remember that a pariah state's life is prolonged when not all members of the international community play moral ball. Even in the unlikely event that none of these weapons were to be used by an immoral state, their mere accumulation strengthened that state's hold over its subjects and neighbours, at least in so far as militarisation gave it a psychological bargaining chip. So Israel's role in propping up the apartheid state militarily was crucial to the apartheid state's survival, even in the unlikely event that Israel genuinely thought these weapons would never be used. Most shocking, however, is the moral paradox that a people who have a painful history of having been at the receiving end of the most grotesque abuses of natural rights can end up exercising such callously poor moral judgment. Although all states should exercise moral caution when dealing with a pariah state, one would expect a state such as Israel to be particularly vigilant. This is not because victims of prejudice necessarily carry a greater normative burden to desist from prejudicial behaviour. Israel's military ties with apartheid SA were abhorrent even if we do not impute to it a unique moral burden to be virtuous. What is uniquely morally offensive, though, is the fact that a victim of oppression who carries a set of memories that are vividly kept alive in many different ways (think of a film like Schindler's List or the German government encouraging its citizens to visit concentration camps lest they forget) should disregard its own memory in aiding an aggressor at the tip of Africa that was inspired by the likes of Nazi Germany. Like victims of anti-black racism who become perpetrators of analogous moral crimes, so Israel's co-operation with apartheid South Africa shows a state's crude preference for political expediency over moral virtue. Israel should have known and done otherwise. The elemental truth is that a state is comprised of human beings who, in their turn, are susceptible to moral criticism. This is no different to multinational corporations being treated as moral agents. We expect companies to behave morally even though they are legal rather than biological entities. The reason is simple. Behind the legal status are real human beings who can and should reason morally about the impact of their actions on the world around them. Similarly, Israeli politicians were in a position to consider the consequences of military co-operation with the apartheid state. They opted to prop up the apartheid state in the face of universal political and moral condemnation. They defied their own experiences of moral crimes, crimes that were arguably worse than those experienced by black South Africans. This is a tragic illustration of immoral statehood and culpable amnesia. History is mandated to judge Israel harshly. McKaiser is a political analyst and weekly politics talk show host on Talk Radio 702