refusniks down south

What does seem obvious is that a transformed, non-belligerent, non-oppressive state (Israel) has far more chance of long-term survival, stability and life rather than death for the entire region than a bullying one has….”


by mike morgan




Israel and its supporters worldwide have a vested interest in portraying Israeli society as a unified homogenous mass that is pro the war in Lebanon and the continued military occupation and campaign in the Gaza. The right to self-defense at any cost and “fighting terrorism” are amongst their favorite arguments, ones that are echoed by both the U.S. and British governments. The New York Times even described the Israeli opposition using only Peace Now as their example of being in solidarity with the IDF’s Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) war, describing them as “pro-Zionist leftists.” Apparently there is such a contradictory political entity. There is some truth to this, as I will attempt to explain later, but the denial that there is any internal Jewish opposition to the belligerence of the Israeli state is false. There are reasons why such manifestations of resistance give discomfort and the willies to the powers that be in Israel. A lynchpin of Zionist ideology argues that it is natural that Arabs, and by extension all non-Jews, are potential enemies of Israel and therefore automatically prone to anti-semitism, itself a racist position. Jewish opponents of Zionist expansionism and overt Israeli militarism are described as “self-hating,” or motivated by leftist leanings that confuse them. These elements are dismissed by Israel as fringe nut cases, and whilst they might be in a minority, they certainly are not insane. But they do not conveniently fit into the Zionist paradigm, in fact they run at odds with it, so their existence must be both denied and suppressed by the advocates of Zionism.

There will no doubt be bickering and finger-pointing within Israel as to how the war was conducted. Politicians and generals will be blamed, opening the door for even more bloodthirsty Benjamin Netanyahu types to re-emerge in the fervor to raise the stakes. The overriding bellyache here is not whether the war was illegal or immoral, but that it didn’t inflict enough damage on the other side of the border, it didn’t result in a clear, decisive victory for Israel, and it cost too many Israeli lives. This kind of squabbling and sour grapes attitude about “not getting the job done properly” should not be mistaken for genuine voices of dissent to the Israeli war machine.

Bellicose regimes that rely on their assumed, self-ordained and self-righteous reputations of being democratic, freedom-loving and peaceful in their intent (no matter how absurd this might be) have a history of facing this conundrum, e.g. the South African apartheid state, the British in Northern Ireland, Israel in Palestine, and the United States in Vietnam and now Iraq. Their outward aggression often depends on the internal loyalty or acceptance of their programs by their own citizenry. Sometimes, this doesn’t always work. There are certain valuable lessons to be gleaned from these struggles. This is my short contribution to that discussion.

South African War Resisters

In 1978, I was a founding member a small group of South African white army resisters in London. The South African Defense Force (SADF) was then the IDF of the Southern African region. At its core were professional soldiers, but its ranks were predominantly made up of young white South African men who were drafted. The draft was compulsory. The SADF did not contain itself to policing internal dissent only. It embarked on invasions and occupations of neighboring countries, notably Namibia and Angola. Like the IDF, it was armed to the teeth and equipped with the latest military technology. And also like the IDF, it showed little mercy and plenty of savagery.

Perhaps the most important factor in the maintenance of the lopsided equation of apartheid was the willingness of white South Africans from all walks of life to join the club and reinforce the status quo uncritically. The dirty work was not only performed by politicians, cops, soldiers, judges, prison wardens and screws. Civil servants, businessmen, the clergy, journalists, academics, school teachers, housewives, bankers in high-rise penthouses, illiterate railway workers in shabby bungalows…all were considered to be loyal enforcers. The minority, not at all insignificant in effect, who consciously weren’t in that camp were immediately marginalized and treated as pariahs by their peers. The white South African community was by no means monolithic, essentially far from it, yet its overwhelming defining characteristic was its basic observance to the rule and perceived permanence of white supremacy.

Central to white loyalty, a litmus test for gauging obedience and adherence to the code of the road, was compulsory military service for all white males eighteen years and older. Just as American kids (some of them anyway) see attending college as part of the growing-up process, so was the draft viewed by young white South African men and their families. It was something that white boys “had to do.” More privileged whites could defer the inevitable by attending university, but ultimately, there was no escape. The only alternative to military duty was pleading insanity, going to prison, or getting out of Dodge. There was no “conscientious objector” status in those days. For white South Africans, service in the SADF was a visible and often violent expression of solidarity with the ideology of white racial superiority.

Our group called itself the South African War Resisters, comprising of ex-servicemen and draft resisters. Our mission statement was simple. We opposed apartheid and called on young whites to vote with their feet by avoiding military service. Some of us had seen combat in the South African occupation of Namibia and its invasion of Angola in 1975-76. We had all grown up in South Africa. We were familiar with the appeals, pressures and rewards put upon whites to play by apartheid’s rules and to be yes-men racists. Many of us still walked around with the white skin privilege baggage that we were born into and grappled to shed it. We believed that only by actively opposing the embodiment of that (adherence to white rule) would we be able to rid our minds and lives of that clutter and therefore play a meaningful role in the South African freedom struggle. We sought to define a new role for white South Africans, one of being part of the liberatory and not the oppressive process. We slowly forged ties with South African liberation organizations, who were rightfully distrustful at first. We had to earn our credentials. There was nothing wrong with this.

While this sounds lofty and well-thought out, it wasn’t necessarily so. There was a rich history of opposition to apartheid, and we were merely a new wrinkle in an ongoing fight that had been waged by black South Africans for decades. But it was our wrinkle, and being the children of a society that firmly placed us on top of the pile, we staggered forward warts and all, developing more sophisticated positions as we went along. But we couldn’t allow guilt to be our motor force. Conditions were allowing us a bit part on an important stage, and we had a responsibility to act. This is how we implemented our program. We targeted draft age white men inside South Africa (eighteen years of age). We edited a magazine called Omkeer (an Afrikaans military phrase meaning “About Face”) and smuggled it into South Africa. In the pages of Omkeer, we argued the case for draft resistance and flat-out desertion. We offered to help young conscripts who escaped, and lobbied for political asylum on their behalf. We became very vocal and participated in larger campaigns waged by the anti-apartheid movement in London, including boycotts, demonstrations and consciousness-raising events. It was this activism that brought me to the United States in September of 1978, where an even smaller group of us formed the South African Military Refugee Aid Fund (SAMRAF), a then-sister organization to the London group. I spent the next eight years as a full-time SAMRAF worker, based in Brooklyn, New York.

I have no intention of singing the praises or airing all of the dirty, sectarian laundry that came with this work. But I do believe it is helpful to highlight certain lessons that we learnt in the course of our struggle, and why they have relevance to what is happening today. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this experience was how seriously the other side took us. The Boers immediately understood the dangers of creating cracks in their fortress. They came down harder than we originally foresaw. We were branded by them as traitors, terrorists, commies and self-hating whites (sound familiar).

The South African authorities and their lackeys, in their eternal quest to dehumanize the opposition and prey on white fears, always referred to opponents of apartheid as “terrorists.” Thus, when I refer to our group and others in the movement as being “terrorists,” it is to expose their hyperbole and dishonesty. Their “terrorist” brush was a wide one. If one was really successful at irritating them, one graduated to the top rung, namely “a godless communist terrorist.” I’m chuffed to say that they awarded us that title.

In 1979, we managed to gain access to a vast address list of draft age South Africans. We were able to get the latest edition of Omkeer into the mailboxes of thousands of soon-to-be South African soldiers. The South African intelligence police responded. They manufactured a facsimile of the magazine (which we received in the mail, post-marked Pretoria) but they completely and crudely distorted our commentary. For example, they took every opportunity to falsely claim that our masters were in Moscow, that we were dupes of international communism, that we advocated wholesale violence against whites, and that we were on the payroll of the terrorists (the South African liberation movements). They even listed our contact address as the Kremlin. It was laughable, but they did it and at some expense, for it too was distributed widely inside South Africa. We exposed their charade at a press conference in the U.N. in April, 1980 (during the transit strike). The Bureau of State Security (BOSS), South Africa’s Gestapo, sent an Afrikaner journalist to interview us. His name was Frans Kemp. He represented Die Beeld, the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper in Johannesburg and the mouthpiece of the ruling South African National Party. Back then, the relationship between the South African Security Police and the press was more than just a conspiratorial suspicion. This received greater prominence a few years later when Gordon Winter, a foreign correspondent for the Johannesburg Sunday Times and The Sunday Express and a personal friend of Oliver Tambo’s family (the president of the outlawed African National Congress) wrote his expose “Inside BOSS,” revealing his long allegiance to the security police. Frans Kemp had cop written all over his mug. His expose-style articles about our group did little to convince us otherwise. He confided to us that he was the individual who had mailed us the original bogus magazine, making him a Boer courier too.

During that same period, we were under constant surveillance by South African agents. If we drew the curtains in our apartments or office, we would receive a phone call with a mysterious voice asking “What are you trying to hide?” We once held a private party on a Saturday night for our friends in the community. The mysterious voice called late that afternoon to tell us it was a bold, stupid idea and to call it off. For months on end, our phones would ring continuously with no voice on the other end, not even the mysterious one. At the end of the day when we moved from office to home, the anonymous phone calls would follow us. Our neighborhood bar (the Gaslight) was even visited by South African plainclothes men, who tried to convince the bartender that we were dangerous (he ignored them and told us). It was disconcerting and sometimes downright scary, but we took solace in the knowledge that we were causing them enough alarm to employ round-the-clock attention.

It wasn’t difficult for the Boers to infiltrate our group. We were vulnerable because we were always being contacted by South African war resisters, new arrivals in the country who either needed our assistance or claimed to want to help us. Often, we had to put these blokes up in our own houses. All it took was for one to say all the right things, ingratiate himself to us and volunteer to join in our activities. We were amateurs who were learning quickly. Naturally, we made mistakes. In September 1981, one such individual, Clifton Westraad, broke into our office, stole all our files and flew back to South Africa that night. He was immediately debriefed by the South African Security Police and then his contrived exposes were slowly fed to an eager press, who had a field day with the whole circus. Again, we were sinister plotters, either extremely disorganized or the opposite, depending on which tack they took on a particular day. Our lives were put under the microscope and these distortions were blared across the front pages of the South African papers. Aside from the usual terrorist/commie conspiracy, we were now sexual deviants, drug addicts, hopeless drunks and frustrated failures, taking our revenge out on innocents. It was pure unadulterated baloney.

My point here is that we had hit a nerve. While the South African authorities no doubt knew that we were small and barely able to survive, and also had to be aware that we personally posed no serious overt military threat to their rule, they certainly did not behave accordingly. Our strength was in the notion and position that we represented and the floodgate that we might open (a sizeable defection by whites). By the late 1980s, “The End Conscription Campaign,” a homegrown entity inside South Africa, was popular amongst young white dissidents and was part of the United Democratic Front (the UDF), one of the umbrella organizations that finally forced the compromised settlement with the Boers. These boys took far greater risks than we did, but their mere existence and growth verified our original stance. The beast could be subverted from within and white allegiance to racism was not automatic. To that degree, we won.

During SAMRAF’s existence in the States, we befriended and worked with many individuals here who had organized against the Vietnam war, particularly people with experience at working with veterans. We learnt a lot from these folks, who were extremely supportive of our tasks. They too had learnt the hard way, and during that period many were willing to reflect and share with us the mistakes they had made and the insights they had gained. There were two major groupings that resembled us (not in size), Fuck The Army (FTA) and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). There were various black organizations that were part of the black liberation struggle here that focused primarily on work within the community of military personnel and ex-servicemen. Black Veterans for Social Justice, based in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and the Black Vanguard Resource Center in Norfolk, Virginia (NATO headquarters in the U.S., and home to the largest U.S. Atlantic fleet) were two groups that we had ties with. From these connections, we gathered the following: that the authorities here took them very seriously, because people with inside knowledge of the war machine who were willing to speak and act out against it were harder to refute; that VVAW, next to the Black Panther Party, was considered by the FBI to be extremely dangerous and as a result, they were one of the most infiltrated groups in the U.S. left; and that General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the Vietnamese Liberation Army, stated that of the five major factors that enabled the Vietnamese to win, one was the internal resistance within the U.S. military, making it unreliable for his U.S. counterparts. Today, as America has troops engaged in an unpopular and deadly war in Iraq, which it appears to be losing, these positions are worthy of reflection, especially by those who are appalled by this war and seek to stop it.

Another serious aspect of our work entailed developing a relationship with the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), the national liberation movement of Namibia. Namibia, in the south west part of Southern Africa, is a large rural and desert terrain of a country, situated between Angola in the north and South Africa to the south on the west Atlantic coast. Namibia (or South West Africa as the whites called it) was a former German colony. In 1907, the Kaiser had decreed that the Herero nation of Namibia, after rebelling, was to be wiped out. Having gone through the experience of German genocide (German occupation in Africa was hideously cruel and inhuman), Namibia was handed over to the South Africans post the German defeat in WWI, who then proceeded to occupy it. Namibia is rich in diamonds and uranium. The Namibians formed SWAPO to resist the South African occupation. By the mid-1970’s, when Angola, the country to the north, gained its independence from Portugal, due in no small part to the military coup in Portugal led by young leftist military officers, it allowed SWAPO guerillas to set up rear bases in the southern part of the country, in close proximity to the Namibian border. South Africa invaded Angola in 1975 and was involved in an extremely dirty counter-insurgency war against SWAPO. Most South African soldiers saw active duty in Northern Namibia, myself included. SWAPO was the sworn enemy of the SADF.

Thus it was indeed a shock to the system when we were able to organize a national speaking tour across the United States in the fall of 1980, featuring Ellen Musialela, a SWAPO woman guerilla commander (and now a member of the Namibian government), and myself, a South African veteran and war resister. We spoke in cities and college towns all across the country, raising funds and consciousness for both SWAPO and the fight against apartheid. We captured the attention of the Ku Klux Klan in Jackson, Mississippi and both the American Nazi Party and the Klan in Lawrence, Kansas, who threatened to break up our events. We were interviewed by big-shot newspapers (the L.A. Times) and well-known talk show hosts (Studs Terkel). We were even given Freedom-of-the-City certificates from the Los Angeles mayor (go figure). The South African bwanas were not amused. The value of this relationship reaped very decent dividends, both materially and politically. Above all, it deflated the South African myth that SWAPO were terrorist thugs and that all whites were on apartheid’s side. Peace Now activists in Israel, who are quite convinced that their support lies with the IDF, should take note. Identification with the supposed enemy was critical to our work, and it distinguished us from merely being irrelevant pinko peaceniks. We were able to ratchet up the ante, causing the regime in South Africa to send more suits to harass and disrupt us. We were beginning to make waves in directions that they found extremely disturbing.

We maintained a full-blown public profile, partly because it afforded us protection against whatever the South African intelligence forces had in mind for us, but also because there was a growing groundswell of support here for anti-apartheid activity, especially in the black community, almost every sector of the U.S. left, and on college campuses. We were often part of large coalitions and this brought us into contact with numerous other organizations. One such was a national group with a local Brooklyn chapter called Jews for Justice. In the summer of 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, we ran an article condemning the invasion in our newsletter, SAMRAF News & Notes. This provoked a letter writing discussion and debate with Jews for Justice, who were incensed that we had likened the behavior of the IDF to that of the SADF. Our position was solid and backed-up. I had seen Israeli Mirage Jet fighter pilots on operational duty in the Caprivi Strip, Northern Namibia in 1977. I was a signaler and had heard their chatter over the radio. Namibia is far away from Tel Aviv. Did SWAPO pose a threat to Israel? In July, 1976, during my basic training with an infantry unit in Ladysmith, South Africa, we grunts were visited by a colonel in the Number Five Recce Commandos, South Africa’s elite special forces. He was on a recruitment drive. This was a few weeks after the Israeli raid on the hijacked jetliner at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. This officer boasted to a hall full of young soldiers that the South African commandos were participants in this joint operation. How did he know this? He was there! The relationship between the two regimes was more than just cordial, polite and diplomatic. Therefore, we weren’t merely blowing air out of our arses. We had seen some of these things with our own eyes. We also had some experience with South African Jewish war resisters passing across our doorstep, and we were familiar with some of their contradictory attitudes regarding South Africa and Israel. In other words, we weren’t strangers to this debate. The Jews for Justice position was full of holes, the biggest ones being that armed struggle in South Africa was worthy of support, but armed Palestinians were terrorists, and that social transformation in South Africa was a noble, worthwhile goal, but was out of the question and too difficult to imagine in Israel. It is this same sorry argument that is now being trotted out by parts of the so-called Israeli left. At least it’s the one The New York Times sees fit to print.

But what really made South Africa and Israel sleeping partners was that they both perceived their circumstances as the same. They were both surrounded by hostiles (Africans/Arabs), they had both disenfranchised the original inhabitants of their respective settler states (Africans/Palestinians), they had both created societies with exclusive rights for only some (whites/Jews) at the expense of many others (Africans/Palestinians), they both felt the need to be as militarily offensive as possible (the SADF/IDF), and they were both police states (BOSS/Shin Bet). Both had nuclear weapons capabilities, developed under secret programs which both denied (Israel to this day). Both were viewed by the west as being bulwarks in the fight against communism and terrorism. To these ends, Israel and South Africa were joined at the hip. Perhaps it was this position that we took that Jews for Justice found so distasteful. The truth often hurts.

Full Circle

This is the reason I chose to write this essay and share some of this information with you, the reader. For we are now back to my opening statement, namely that Israel will do its utmost to pose itself as a nation united by and for war. I know the following to be true. My sister, a documentary film maker, made a film in 2002 called “After Jenin,” chronicling Israeli aggression against that particular Palestinian refugee camp. She recalls an Israeli peace activist calling her film crew back so he could specifically plea to the west to impose sanctions and boycotts on Israel. She recently reminded me of Yonathan Shapira, an air force pilot who spent ten years obeying orders before he came to his senses, appealing for sanctions in 2004. Yesh Gevul is the Israeli military resisters group and it means “There is a limit” or “The Border.” Their mission statement reads as follows: “We candidates for service in the IDF, men and women as responsible citizens, hereby declare that we will take no part in the oppression of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, and we will not participate in policing actions or guarding the settlements.” Many of their members are doing time in Israeli prisons. If you Google their name, you’ll find information about personnel who have refused to serve in this latest go-around. These people are doing exactly what we tried to do in our South African work, they’re doing it on the ground, and they are the ones who deserve a listen to, not some miserable gobbledy-gook that passes for opposition (see The New York Times, August 9, 2006 on the Israeli left’s support for the war).

My point is that in order for there to be some glimmer of hope and justice in that part of the world, Israel has to undergo dramatic change. It cannot be allowed to act like a Prussian Gauleiter with ethnic-cleansing on his mind. On the day after the first cease-fire, August 15, 2006, Ehud Olmert had already issued a statement claiming that “We’ll do better next time,” referring to whatever the forthcoming Israeli military blitzkrieg might be. The Israeli newspaper Maariv even quoted an Israeli officer back in 2002 as saying that “…If we are to seize a densely-packed refugee camp or take over the Nablus casbah…we need to analyze how the German army operated in the Warsaw ghetto.” The change needed in Israel must come from within. This is not the ranting of some mullah calling for the total destruction of the Zionist entity. That’s dishonest bluster and rhetoric, since most know they can’t defeat Israel militarily as it stands today. Uri Avnery, an activist with Gush Shalom, a smaller Israeli peace bloc, was recently quoted as saying this: “When the State of Israel was founded in the middle of a cruel war, a poster was plastered on the walls: ‘All the country – a front! All the people – an army!’ Fifty-eight years later and the same slogan is as valid today as it was then. What does that say about generations of generals and statesman.” Apparently, not much.

It’s impossible to believe that the entire recent Israeli military operation in Lebanon was planned post the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, likewise the war on the Gaza front after the Hamas kidnaping of one Israeli trooper. One might well conclude that the Israeli generals, aware that the invasion would provoke a retaliatory response, were willing to play chess with the inhabitants of the Israeli towns under rocket attacks in exchange for an opportunity to implement their plan. What that plan is, possibly the establishment of a puppet Quisling government in Lebanon, or testing the limits of its allies’ support, or drawing the United States into a wider regional conflict with Syria and Iran, remains to be seen. The July 21, 2006 San Francisco Chronicle ran an article headlined “Israel set war plan more than a year ago…” The news report states that “More than a year ago, a senior Israeli Army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations on an off-the-record basis to U.S. and other journalists, diplomats and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail.” The self-defense excuse alone does not cut the mustard here, in fact it sounds contrived, especially if the Israelis were waiting for the slightest provocation to launch their pre-planned attacks.

What does seem obvious is that a transformed, non-belligerent, non-oppressive state (Israel) has far more chance of long-term survival, stability and life rather than death for the entire region than a bullying one has. We were dismissed by main-streamers and nay-sayers in South Africa and here as promoters of the impossible. Yet fifteen years after Ellen and I slogged around this country telling people about South Africa’s illegal wars, Namibia was independent, Nelson Mandela was out of the joint, and the ANC was on its way to winning the first free election in South Africa’s history. It wasn’t the greatest result (in some circles, it’s still regarded as a revolutionary defeat), it’s not a utopia, indeed far from it, but it is significantly different than what it was and that, in and of itself, is something worth thinking about.

August, 2006
Brooklyn, NY


Originally published:
Issue Forty-Six
December 2006



A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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