South Africa Accuses: The Trial of Israel and the Ghosts of Soviet Anti-Zionism

In accusing Israel of genocide, South Africa seeks to obscure its own post-apartheid corruption, poverty, lawlessness and staggering crime rates, but also its unabating racial tensions and rising antisemitism.
January 22, 2024
Amith Nag Photography/Getty Images; Oleksii Liskonih/Getty Images

The October 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israel reanimated the long history of anti-Jewish violence, both ethnoreligiously and ideologically incited, from the pillaging mobs during the Crusades to the pogroms of the 1900s, from the genocidal annihilation of Jewish communities by the Haydamaks in Ukraine in 1768 to the genocide of Jews by Nazis and their accomplices during the Shoah. But the Hamas violence, which took the lives of nearly 1200 people on Israeli soil, ripped hostages from families and communities, and forced Israel into yet another war it did not seek with its Arab neighbors, opened a new chapter in the history of “legal” persecution of Jews.

In this legal history of religious Judeophobia and racialized antisemitism, neither frenzied mobs brandishing axes nor trained commandos armed with submachine guns do the job of punishing Jewish victims for their own victimization. In this history, spanning from the early Middle Ages to the present, the prosecutors—persecutors—of Jews are kings and government officials, judges and learned jurists. Legal injustice against individual Jews and whole Jewish communities still touches the minds of students and theater-goers when they confront Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” set in the Italian city that invented a model ghetto. Medieval prejudice, outrageous manipulation of evidence, and the doge’s contrivance all conspire in a judgment against the Jew Shylock, who cannot achieve a fair verdict in a European court of law. Not for the love of Jews but for the sake of verisimilitude, Shakespeare’s genius captures the crux of the history of the Jews’ legal persecution.

In the Russian Empire, the Pale of Settlement and the inequality of Jews were legal, and in Germany the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 legally stripped Jews of their rights as citizens. The world likes to forget, or to feign ignorance, that throughout history, injustices against Jews have been carried out legally in different institutions of jurisprudence and courts of law. In the 19th and 20th centuries this happened, most egregiously, in the Russian Empire, France and the Third Reich but also in the United States of America (e.g. the Leo Frank trial of 1913) and in the Stalinist USSR and Eastern Europe (e.g. the trial of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee or the Rudolf Slánský trial, both of 1952). Trials of Jews, falsely accused of vicious crimes against non-Jews and of plots against countries, from murder and rape of Christian children to high treason, from well poisoning to being involved in a “Zionist conspiracy,” were conducted by judges, juries, and military tribunals. These trials constituted a particular abomination of truth and justice right under Themis’s blindfolded yet antisemitic gaze.

On 29 December, 2023, South Africa brought a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, accusing Israel of allegedly committing genocide against the residents of Gaza. The ICJ trial of Israel bears many marks of the notorious antisemitic trials of the past. Not unlike the Dreyfus affair of 1894, the South African case paints Jews—here collectively the Jewish state of Israel—as having no regard for ethics and law. In ways typologically similar to the Beilis trial of 1913, in which a Jewish man was accused of the blood libel, Israel’s South African accusers fabricate noxious lies by arguing that Israelis commit genocide against Palestinian Arabs. To Israel’s foes now celebrating intifada in the streets and cursing Israel on campuses—to Israel’s detractors united under the international banners of anti-Zionism—South Africa’s case augurs a victory of political strategy and legal maneuvering against Israel. To Israel’s supporters, the ICS case against Israel, a state created in the aftermath of the largest genocide in history, is a bacchanalia of legal antisemitism, a nightmare of reason, and a travesty of justice.

South Africa’s legal team, comprised of attorneys with roots in Black, Southeast Asian and European communities, is designed to represent a successful, forward-looking, post-apartheid nation. South Africa’s government is not shy about its advocacy against Israel and on behalf of Palestinian Arabs. Shawan Jabarin, formerly a senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), appeared at the ICJ with the South African delegation. A high-level Hamas delegation visited South Africa in December 2023, weeks following the massacres of October 7, which claimed the lives of at least two South African nationals. Days after the October 7 attack, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, had a phone conversation with Hamas’s political leader Ismail Haniyeh. Pandor’s engagement with Hamas outraged and terrified members of South Africa’s Jewish community, as did also the recent government announcement that South African citizens who are in the IDF would be “prosecuted.” South Africa’s government has denied that during the phone call with Haniyeh, Pandor voiced support for Hamas’s violence while equivocating that “Minister Pandor’s call with the Hamas leader is in line with South Africa’s readiness to engage all interlocutors.”

In accusing Israel of genocide, South Africa seeks to obscure its own post-apartheid corruption, poverty, lawlessness and staggering crime rates, but also its unabating racial tensions and rising antisemitism. As Israel’s accuser, South Africa is presently the only African nation with a large if shrinking Jewish community, estimated at over 50,000. Furthermore, the majority of Jews who emigrated to South Africa from the 1880s to 1910 came from Lithuania, where 95% of the Jewish population was later annihilated during the Shoah. There is both poignancy and perversity in the fact that South Africa—a country that betokens its black and brown population’s struggle against apartheid—now leads the international efforts to isolate Israel and to delegitimize Zionism.

As Israel’s accuser, South Africa is presently the only African nation with a large if shrinking Jewish community, estimated at over 50,000.

South Africa’s case is a pinnacle of decades of efforts, originally led by the Soviet Union both domestically and internationally, to demonize Israel, equate Zionism with racism, and insidiously to portray Israel as a racist state. Today’s South Africa has a special stake in the history of Soviet-led ideological and diplomatic war against Israel. On December 14, 1973, UN General Assembly Resolution 3151 G (XXVIII) condemned “the unholy alliance between between Portuguese colonialism, South African racism, Zionism and Israeli imperialism.” On November 10, 1975 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 3379 (XXX), both a brainchild of Soviet foreign policy against Israel and a reflection of Soviet antisemitism masked as anti-Zionism. The resolution stated that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Of the 72 countries that voted in favor of the resolution, the vast majority were countries of the Soviet bloc and countries of the Middle East, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, where the Soviet Union exerted much influence. South Africa voted against the resolution. When on December 16, 1991 UN General Assembly Resolution 46/86 voted to revoke Resolution 3379, with 111 countries in favor, South Africa was among 15 countries absent during the vote.

In the words of Milton Shain, a historian of Jews in South Africa, in the early 1990s, with “the unbanning of the [African National Congress] and other proscribed movements, and the normalization of South African politics, a broad hostility towards Zionism reared itself in public discourse.” While Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, was a champion of Palestinian statehood and had strong ties with the PLO, he also sought a balanced relationship with Israel. Mandela accepted an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University in 1997 and traveled to Israel in 1999, soon after the end of his presidency. Among the international observers at South Africa’s first democratic election of 1994 was Natan Sharansky, formerly a Soviet Prisoner of Zion and a prominent Israeli politician who was friendly with Mandela. During the 2000s-2010s, under the presidencies of Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa and due largely to the growing influence of the radical members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s relations with Israel deteriorated further and further. As Israel’s accuser not only in the ICJ but also in the public court of Israel’s enemies, South Africa appears to be cleansing itself of its past connections with Israel as it leads the anti-Zionist parade.

It is crucial to understand the deep connections between South Africa’s case against Israel and the living legacy of Soviet militant anti-Zionism. How did the Soviet regime, which fell apart in 1991, manage to plant the slow-acting anti-Zionist poison in the wounds of South Africa’s apartheid past?

How did the Soviet regime, which fell apart in 1991, manage to plant the slow-acting anti-Zionist poison in the wounds of South Africa’s apartheid past?

To make sense of this connection, one needs to consider that, starting with the 1960s, the Soviet regime exported a combustible mix of anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist and anti-Zionist rhetoric by training tens of thousands of students and thousands of political activists from African, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and Latin American countries. Some of the trainees received their Soviet education (which in many cases included ideological indoctrination) not at regular Soviet universities but at such specialized institutions as the Higher Party School in Moscow as well as at classified facilities. That the USSR, an heir to the Russian Empire, was the world’s largest colonial empire, did not seem to trouble its international aspirants who became Soviet operatives and exponents of Soviet ideology. And those of us who came of age in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s-1980s remember not the purported internationalism but rather the pervasive racism, which students of color experienced while studying and living in Soviet cities. Anti-Zionism was part of the education of foreign political activists in the USSR. As the historian Izabella Tabarovsky revealed, in 1982 Mahmoud Abbas, now President of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), defended a dissertation in Moscow. The title of his project, “The Relationship Between Zionists and Nazis, 1933-1945,” elaborated a commonplace of Soviet anti-Zionist rhetoric, whereby Israel was routinely maligned as a new “Nazi” state.

The fact that the ANC-led South Africa has now emerged as the leader in a global anti-Israel campaign should give pause to a historian of the Cold War. For the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists committed to undermining Israel’s legitimacy, it has always been tactically important to evoke a metaphorical connection between the Jewish state and the apartheid South Africa. In doing so, the opponents of Israel tapped into a cause of racial emancipation that, by the end of the Cold War, had become almost universally popular among Western intellectual elites and across Jewish communities in the West. This approach also sought to capitalize on a complicated relationship between independent African nations and Israel. Indeed, until Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel had been often perceived on the African continent as “one of us”—a young postcolonial state forging its nationhood. All through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Israel expended considerable resources on cultivating close economic and political partnerships in Africa, dispatching agricultural experts, establishing joint ventures, and providing professional and military training to African countries.

The shift in the attitudes toward Israel on the part of many independent African nations occurred in response to Israel’s successes on the battlefield and also to the rising alliance between Israel and the United States. Increasingly, Israel was viewed as a stranger among the postcolonial nations, masquerading as a “natural ally” while in substance and ambition closely welded to the West, and especially to the United States. The October 1973 (Yom Kippur) War had effectively ended the fraying relationships between the majority of the African nations and Israel. As the Israeli army crossed the Suez Canal in pursuit of the retreating Egyptian armed forces and thus entered Africa proper, twenty-one Black African nations severed diplomatic ties with Israel. By the end of 1973, only four Black African nations continued to have diplomatic representation in Israel. It was to a significant extent in response to this rejection by Africa that Israel fostered closer links with those few nations on the continent that remained friendly, notably South Africa with its sizeable Jewish community.

The October 1973 (Yom Kippur) War had effectively ended the fraying relationships between the majority of the African nations and Israel.

Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation in Africa overlapped with an intensified global anti-Zionist campaign conducted by the Soviet Union. By the early 1970s, anti-Zionism had firmly entered the canon of Soviet propaganda as it was directed at Soviet citizens, served to the sympathetic political forces in the West, and beamed at the newly independent nations of the so-called “Third World.” According to some estimates, up to 3,000 ANC and SACP (South African Communist Party) cadres received education and political and military training in the Soviet Union at the height of the Moscow-designed anti-Zionist campaign that eventually produced the UN Resolution 3379. The training entailed not only skills of anti-apartheid struggle but also an indoctrination against Israel and Zionism. According to historians Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, by the early 1980s most of the ANC funding and military support was provided by Moscow. Such ANC leaders as Oliver Tambo, ANC president in 1967-1991, and South Africa’s future president Thabo Mbeki, were frequent visitors in the Soviet Union. In 1969 Mbeki was sent to study at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow, where he received schooling under an alias.

Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation in Africa overlapped with an intensified global anti-Zionist campaign conducted by the Soviet Union.

Decades before the ascendancy of the “intersectional” left on U.S. campuses, Soviet ideologues breathed life into a set of remarkably similar ideas that sought to link anticolonial and antiracist battles waged across the globe to Moscow’s other favored political causes, including a relentless anti-Zionist campaign. These views resonated with the radical left in Europe and produced jarring alliances. To take one example: In late June 1976, a group of terrorists hijacked an Air France flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijacking was a partnership between two militants from the PFLP and two German leftist radicals from the ranks of the Red Cells (RZ). The terrorists brought the plane to Uganda, ruled at the time by the dictator Idi Amin, who had previously received paratrooper training in Israel during the days of the Israel-African rapprochement. On July 4, 1976, most of the passengers of the hijacked flight were rescued in a daring Israeli raid known as Operation Entebbe, but not before the victims of the hijacking had been given a taste of violent intersectionality; the terrorists proceeded to separate Jewish hostages from the non-Jewish ones.

In a truly Shakespearean plot twist, the young German antiracist revolutionaries, obsessed with the sins of their fathers and struggling to atone for them by fighting Israel, ended up reenacting Nazi crimes. Surely, the involvement of Western radicals in terrorism against Israel offers lessons for the present, and surely these lessons also point to the morbid triumphalism of today’s European and American ideological heirs to the Entebbe hijackers as they celebrate South Africa’s case against Israel without understanding its profound legal problems and its deep Soviet roots.

In the astute analysis of South Africa’s case against Israel, the historian Norman J.W. Goda expressed hope that the 18 ICJ judges “will see the South African application for what it is, and relegate it to the ever-increasing pile of anti-Israeli propaganda.” By putting Israel, the Middle East’s the only democracy, on trial for fighting Hamas and other armies that wish to annihilate Israel, the International Court of Justice in The Hague is also trying the very idea of the Jewish state. Bewigged red ghosts of Soviet anti-Zionism, those invisible yet voluble members of South Africa’s legal team, continue their toxic work from beyond the grave. It is now incumbent upon the judges of the International Criminal Court to recognize the case against Israel for what it is, a Soviet-inspired fabrication fueled by a mix of political opportunism and laced with antisemitism—to recognize the insipidness and falseness of South Africa’s accusations and to find for Israel.

Maxim D. Shrayer, Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College, is the author of the memoir “Immigrant Baggage: Morticians, Purloined Diaries, and Other Theatrics of Exile” and the forthcoming collection of poetry, “Kinship.”

Maxim Matusevich, Professor of History at Seton Hall University, is the author of “Africa in Russia, Russia in Africa: Three Centuries of Encounters” and “No Easy Row for a Russian Hoe: Ideology and Pragmatism in Nigerian-Soviet Relations, 1960-1991.”


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