"Before the Apartheid Analogy: South African Radicals and Israel/Palestine, 1940s-1970s"

Defended and received an "Outstanding" mark on August 15, 2023 

Click the photo for the dissertation's full text (ProQuest)

Praise for the dissertation from the evaluating committee:

"in-depth cross-national research in multiple archives and multiple languages."

"complexity of argument and bold originality of the topic."

"clarity of prose and narrative exposition."

[The committee commends] "his ability to historicize, rather than debate, the “apartheid analogy” that often proves controversial when South Africa and Israel are brought into the same analytical frame."

[The committee commends] "his ability to tell in tandem the story of local radical politics in South Africa, geopolitical maneuverings in Israel, and the global context of Cold War decolonization struggles."


In recent decades, scholars and activists have increasingly drawn an analogy between realities in Israel/Palestine and apartheid South Africa. Aware of Israel’s past alliance with South Africa’s white-minority regime, South African anti-apartheid movements have also embraced this analogy, leading to Israel being widely remembered in South Africa as an apartheid collaborator. However, this prevailing analogy masks a more fluid radical engagement with Zionism and Israel from the 1940s to the 1960s. During this period, Israel and Zionism sparked heated debates and diverse perspectives within South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement existed, ranging from sympathy and admiration to suspicion and denunciation.

This dissertation studies the evolving perspectives on Israel/Palestine among South African anti-apartheid activists, tracing their transition from solid support for a Jewish State in Palestine in 1948 to fervent anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian stances by the 1970s. It explores how, for approximately two decades, some South African radicals considered Israel a potential ally and admired its struggle for independence and early achievements. It analyzes the lengthy process by which most of those radicals came to see Israel as an apartheid-like state. It also shows how various radical ideologies, from Trotskyism to Pan-Africanism, shaped their specific attitudes toward Israel through different interpretations of nationalism, anti-fascism, the Cold War, decolonization, and interactions with Israelis.

The history of South African radicals’ views and relations with Israel sheds light on the evolution of the apartheid analogy. It recognizes an embryonic analogical discourse as early as the late 1940s but also reveals that opposing analogies, comparing the suffering of Jews and Africans, also emerged. It demonstrates how the analogy took shape over time, developing its analytical depth through various influences and interactions with local and international discourses.  

Additionally, this study provides the first comprehensive historical account of Israel’s short yet eventful anti-apartheid era. Prevailing historiography focuses on Israel’s intimate alliance with apartheid, beginning in the early 1970s. However, during the 1960s, Israel pursued an anti-apartheid policy, including covert ties with liberation movements, notably the Pan-Africanist Congress. This dissertation sheds light on these previously largely unknown connections and suggests that the eventual alliance with apartheid was not inevitable.

Two examples of the early attitude of South African radicals towards Israel: An editorial (L) in the Guardian (a communist-leaning weekly) congratulating the establishment of the state in May 1948; and a letter (R) from the ANC, praising the Israeli anti-apartheid votes at the UN in the early 1960s.