The absence this week of Israel’s two leading political figures, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, at the massive memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa was both painful and sad. Whether or not illness made it impossible for President Peres to attend is something we cannot know, although surely, it would not have been an easy trip for a man of Peres’ age.
Netanyahu’s absence, however, is something else entirely. With virtually every head of state from the farthest corners of the world in attendance, including four American presidents along with an eclectic collection of political leaders both enlightened and despotic, it was hard to understand why exactly Netanyahu wasn’t there.
Netanyahu’s absence caused a huge outcry in Israel, with editorialists in all the major newspapers and electronic media outlets accusing him of exacerbating Israel’s isolation in the world community of nations precisely when it can afford it the least. The reason given by Netanyahu’s spokesperson was that the cost of transporting him and his entourage to the funeral was prohibitively expensive.
The backdrop for this explanation was a scathing indictment only recently of Netanyahu’s alleged extravagant spending on luxury items, from scented candles to flower arrangements and gardening at his official residence. With Israel’s middle class already up in arms about cost-cutting measures, the Prime Minister’s personal lack of restraint aroused more than the usual firestorm of protest. So, the story goes, in light of already being under the gun for over-the-top spending, it was felt that making the trip to Johannesburg would just add fuel to the fire.
Is it possible that a man who is such a political animal – and a remarkably effective one at that – could actually be so tone-deaf to political sensitivities that he would risk hurting the global interests of the country he loves for the sake of making a sarcastic and very ill-advised political point? If true, it was as if he were saying, “OK, you want me to spend less, I’ll spend less. I’ll skip Mandela’s funeral.” It would be the ultimate example of penny-wise, pound-foolish.
I, for one, cannot believe that the decision to stay away from Mandela’s funeral had anything at all to do with money. I can be as cynical as the next person, especially when it comes to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s motives on any one of a number of issues, but I simply cannot imagine him engaging in such gratuitously harmful behavior.
So the fundamental question remains: why would he stay away? I have to believe that it lies somewhere in the tangled and complicated history between Israel and South Africa.
It is hardly a secret that, during the years of apartheid in South Africa, Jerusalem and Pretoria were serious trade partners. Weapons, nuclear technology, agriculture… it was all part of a lucrative arrangement for both sides. Actually, before the Yom Kippur War, Israel was a hugely significant presence in Africa, offering its expertise in agriculture, military know-how and other areas to the developing countries of its neighboring continent. Some may remember that none other than Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator responsible for the Entebbe hijacking, wore Israeli paratrooper wings on his uniform. Israel’s footprint was everywhere.
But in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, with the resulting oil embargo and pressure placed upon them by OPEC, most of those Arab countries broke off relations with Israel. South Africa did not, and as it increasingly became a pariah nation because of apartheid, Israel became a pariah as well, because of the Arab boycott. They were, essentially, left with each other. Israel publicly decried apartheid, but that never stopped the business element of the relationship.
It is easy to fault Israel for being a trading partner during these years– probably a bit too easy. It reminds me more than a little of the Middle Ages, when Jews engaged in money-lending primarily because a hostile world had made all other possibilities unavailable to them, like the trade guilds and land ownership. You do what you have to do to survive.
None of this is to be understood as a “whitewash.” Dealing with South Africa during its apartheid years left an indelible stain on Israel’s soul – a price that, one might say, it willingly and understandably had no choice but to pay at the time. I have to think that, in some way, the lasting impact of that stain played a role in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to stay away from Pretoria last week. The decision was at best an ill-advised one, enhancing the perception that Israel’s policies on the West Bank are comparable to apartheid.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.