Israel's decision not to sign any new military contracts with South Africa highlights the traditionally awkward situation of South African Jews. Whether relations between Israel and South Africa are friendly or strained, they leave this country's strongly Zionist, 120,000 Jews open to criticism.
When Israeli-South African ties are conspicuously close, as in the past decade, the Jewish community here is embarrassed by Israel's connection with a government seen as racist. When ties are strained, Pretoria's white, mainly Afrikaner rulers view pro-Israeli sentiments among Jews here as disloyalty.
The Israeli decision, announced yesterday in Jerusalem, comes only days before the April 1 release of a United States government report that was expected to list Israel as one of Pretoria's top five weapons traders. Under a US act adopted last year, nations that sell weapons to South Africa could lose US military aid.
Anti-Semitism per se is no longer part of mainstream Afrikaner thinking, but hostility toward Jews can surface. At the UN in the early 1960s, Israel denounced apartheid as ``reprehensible and repugnant to the dignity and rights of peoples and individuals.'' Then-South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd rescinded special concessions that allowed Jews to transfer money to Israel.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, seen as the Jews' ``central representative institution,'' conducted a survey on anti-Semitism last July. The board expressed concern about anti-Semitism in ultra-rightist Afrikaner circles. The survey said that the Herstigte Nasionale Party (Reconstituted National Party) questions the loyalty of South Africa's Jews to Pretoria and ``denies the truth of the Holocaust ....''
And the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, the survey said, attacks parliamentary democracy as a ``British-Jewish system designed to weaken the Afrikaner people by dividing them against one another.''
The report also noted ``increased expressions'' of anti-Semitism among those blacks who associate Israel - and through it, Zionism - with apartheid. Noting that the multiracial United Democratic Front had not taken a specific stand on Jews, it said that the group had ``shied away from formal contact with the organized Jewish community [and demands] denunciation of Zionism as a precondition for such contact.''
In the black Azanian People's Organization, the survey said, ``anti-Zionism is accompanied by anti-Semitism'' because ``Jews are perceived as an integral part of the ruling white minority.'' In fact, many South African Jews are prominent foes of the ruling National Party, which opposed South Africa's decision to fight against Nazi Germany in World War II.
Some South African Jews have criticized the Board of Deputies for not being critical enough of the government nor vigorous enough in the quest for a just society. The emergence in 1985 of two strongly anti-apartheid Jewish organizations, Jews for Social Justice in Johannesburg and Jews for Justice in Cape Town, is seen as an indication of Jewish impatience with the board's approach.
Discussing the argument that close Israeli ties with South Africa guarantee the security of Jews here, Rabbi Selwyn Franklin of Jews for Justice said: ``In the short term it might work to the interest of the Jewish community. But in the long term it would be unwise. It is important for Israel to be more circumspect.''
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.