Anti-apartheid Israelis Quiet, but Leader Vows to Fight on
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Anti-apartheid Israelis Quiet, but Leader Vows to Fight on

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Esther Levitan admits that the average Israeli’s interest in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement is not what it once was or could be.

But as a member of Israelis Against Apartheid, the group she was instrumental in founding in 1985, she is generous in her criticism.

“You never find anybody in Israel who is not anti-apartheid,” said Levitan, who left South Africa in 1984.

If a meeting of Israel’s most dedicated antiapartheid activists can take place comfortably in her Ramat Aviv apartment, she said, it is because Israel’s leftist parties and peace groups, from whose ranks her organization draws its most loyal support, are currently immersed in Israel’s own crises.

Levitan understands crises, and their ability to consume a person’s time and energy. Now a silver-haired grandmother, she spent most of her life in Johannesburg, raising a family while managing to work against the strict system of legal segregation known as apartheid.

She was jailed for her activities in 1982, and languished in detention for three months — an experience she refers to only fleetingly.

On her first night of freedom, a stone came crashing through the window of her home. She had neither a passport (authorities seized it upon her detention) nor the desire to leave South Africa permanently, but she allowed British diplomats to arrange for her passage to England.

“What would I do in Israel? It’s a foreign country,” she remembered thinking when Israeli officials offered to help her leave South Africa.

Levitan still spends half the year in Middlesex, and admits she chose to live the rest of the time in Israel to avoid the English winters.


Earlier this month, on a visit to the United States that included visiting her son’s family in Los Angeles, Levitan talked about the paradoxes of Jewish life in South Africa, and her new life in Israel.

Of South Africa’s 30 million whites, 2.3 percent, or 115,000, are Jews. Like Levitan’s own parents who migrated from Lithuania, their ancestors came as immigrants and refugees, fleeing economic hardship or intolerance. Asked why so many Jews continue to live in a state which imposes those same conditions on others, Levitan’s voice rose.

“Do you have any idea how white South Africans live? I never made a bed in my life, hardly cooked a meal. When I was in the Mercaz Klita (Israeli absorption center), they gave me a stick with a rubber strip on the end.

Someone finally told me it was for washing the floors. White South Africa must have the highest standard of living in the world,” she said.

That comfort, combined with an atmosphere generally free of anti-Semitism, leads to “a kind of inertia.” Nevertheless, most young South African Jews have left, said Levitan, who was active in the South African Zionist Federation.

Emigration increased after periods of South African unrest in 1960 and 1976 and after “emergency measures” were introduced in 1985. An estimated 14,000 South Africans now live in Israel, according to the Israeli government.

Levitan wanted to draw on that base when she began talking with Israeli leftists about starting an Israeli anti-apartheid movement. She especially wanted to focus attention on Israel’s economic ties with the racist state.


“Even I had no idea of the extent to which Israel seems to be economically dependent on South Africa. In every industry there are economic ties between the country, not only the military.

“I have no doubt that most countries deal with Israel through the back door. Why does Israel go through the front door?”

Official Israeli statistics differ with Levitan’s assessment. In 1985, before the Israeli Cabinet voted to curtail its dealings with South Africa and cooperate with international sanctions, Israel imported $63,896,000 worth of South African goods, and exported $174,654,000 in Israeli wares and expertise to South Africa.

Those figures amounted to only 1 percent of the total foreign trade of both countries, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

By comparison, the United Kingdom’s trade with South Africa in 1984 included $742 million in imports and $1.6 billion in exports.

But according to Levitan, “Israel pays lip service to the sanctions and embargoes against South Africa. I don’t mean to attack: I understand it on an emotional level, that Israel can’t choose its friends. But I must object to it on a political level.”

Still, Levitan bristles at attempts to equate Israel’s internal problems with South Africa’s.

“Yes, racism exists everywhere, in some form. But South Africa is not only racist, but unique.

“In South Africa the law compels statutory racism. That’s the difference. The laws entrench racism.

“True, unskilled labor in Israel is done by Arabs, and Arabs may not be living side by side with Jews,” she continued. “But the law doesn’t prevent them from doing it. To me, that’s a crucial difference.”


Israelis Against Apartheid was launched in November 1985 by a committee that included representatives of the Mapam, Ratz and other parties along with well-known activists like Abie Nathan. The first major event was a march through Tel Aviv to the South African Embassy.

Operating on a shoestring budget, the group has held similar events since then.

But with the onset of the Palestinian uprising in December 1987 and with elections looming on Nov. 1, Israelis Against Apartheid is on hold.

When Levitan returns to Israel in the winter, she will see if there is any interest left in reviving the movement. For now, Levitan’s thoughts return to those friends she left behind in South Africa.

They include the activists, like members of the South African Union of Jewish Students, for whom progress is measured in microscopic increments.

Latety her concern is focused on David Bruce, the son of a Holocaust survivor who has begun serving a six-month sentence for resisting conscription in the South African military.

“Can you imagine what they’re doing to him in prison?” Levitan asked, with a look of someone who knows too well.

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