Is Israel an apartheid state? Answers from someone who’d know

In South Africa, Benjamin Pogrund was jailed for opposing the regime. Now, in Israel, he abhors the occupation but insists there’s no comparison

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Pogrund, center, next to Nelson Mandela (courtesy Benjamin Pogrund)
Benjamin Pogrund, center, next to Nelson Mandela (courtesy Benjamin Pogrund)

Benjamin Pogrund pioneered the reporting of black politics in apartheid South Africa over 26 years of working for the Rand Daily Mail, one of the country’s leading newspapers.

“When I was deputy editor and ran the paper, I used to keep telling my staff: Do not exaggerate. Report apartheid straight,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Reporting it straight is sensation in itself. There’s no need to exaggerate it.”

The same principle applies today to critics of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Pogrund said. Rather than accuse Jerusalem of practicing apartheid and thus draw an inaccurate parallel between two fundamentally different situations, those unhappy about Israeli policies should let the bare facts speak for themselves, he added. “Just tell the story.”

“Could anything be worse than that?” he said, pointing to a chapter about the systematic discrimination of Palestinians in the West Bank in his new book, which deals with the apartheid comparison. “What is wrong with saying, ‘We’re against the occupation, we’re against tyranny?’ There are good words to be used. You don’t need to drag in apartheid.”

Benjamin Pogrund (photo credit: courtesy)
Benjamin Pogrund (photo credit: courtesy)

Today living in Jerusalem, Pogrund, 81, is arguably the most vocal — and perhaps best placed — critic of equating Israel with apartheid South Africa. “The apartheid accusation is a deadly one,” he said. “It’s something that people can relate to. It sounds so straightforward and direct and easy. The fact that it’s built on a foundation of simple untruths and exaggeration and distortion is another matter.”

Pogrund knows apartheid up close, the original kind. One of the most prominent Jewish opponents of the South African apartheid regime, he was a close confidant and personal friend of Nelson Mandela. In 1961, as his paper’s African affairs reporter, Pogrund helped the future president organize an illegal strike.

“Mandela and I met secretly and regularly,” Pogrund recalled in David Saks’s 2011 book “Jewish Memories of Mandela.” “We had a system of sending messages to arrange to meet, which would either be at a friend’s house in Fordsburg, or when I would drive to a street corner at night, pick up Mandela — his worker’s overalls disguise did little to hide his tall, imposing figure — and we would sit in my car in a dark street and talk about the strike campaign.”

‘I wasn’t just a white man in South Africa. I was hugely active for many years, and the same here’

Pogrund’s ties to Mandela — who called him “Benjie-boy” — and other anti-apartheid activists got him into trouble with the authorities. He had his passport revoked, was harassed by police and put on trial several times, and even sent to jail once for refusing to disclose a source. In the mid-1980s, Pogrund and his wife were the first non-family members to visit Mandela in his prison cell on Robben Island, where he was serving a life sentence for sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government.

A short while later, the Rand Daily Mail was shut down due to its opposition to apartheid, and Pogrund moved to London. In 1997, he immigrated to Israel to found the Yakar Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem, which he led until 2010.

“I’m probably unique in Israel because I straddled both societies,” he told The Times of Israel last week in his apartment in the capital’s Old Katamon neighborhood. “Not just because I lived in both societies, but because I’ve been intimately involved in the problems in both societies. I wasn’t just a white man in South Africa. I was hugely active for many years, and the same here.”

In “Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel,” which came out in July, Pogrund ardently argues against comparing South Africa with the Jewish state. At the same time, he makes plain his utter disapproval of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Book cover of "Drawing Fire"
Book cover of “Drawing Fire”

“Yes, Israel’s Arab minority does suffer discrimination, but their lot is not remotely comparable with blacks under apartheid. To claim they are the same is to stretch, bend, twist and contort truth,” he writes. The situation in the West Bank is more complex, Pogrund admits. The status quo there is a “tyranny,” obviously colonialism and an international offense. “But to claim that this is the same racist rule as apartheid South Africa is without substance or truth,” he insists.

“Intentionality is the key test,” he explains. “In South Africa, the white rulers deliberately set about forcing segregation and discrimination into every aspect of life; that was their intention from the start, with the aim of securing power and privilege for the white minority. That is not Israel on the West Bank. There is no ideological aim to discriminate against Palestinians.” Checkpoints, separate roads, the exploitation of water and other resources are “not ideological roads,” he writes, “they are the consequences of occupation and resistance to it. End the occupation, and they will.”

There are also only few similarities between Jewish settlers in the West Bank and white Afrikaners, Pogrund writes, such as racism, a “Chosen People belief” and the literal interpretation of the Bible. “That is as far as it goes. With all the oppression and harsh consequences of the occupation, it is nothing like the meticulously organized and institutionalized racism of apartheid South Africa.”

Naturally, some critics of Israeli policies reject this view, especially in light of the situation in the areas Israel captured in 1967. “As soon as you have in the same territory two separate legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians, you have apartheid,” said Alon Liel, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, who served as Israel’s ambassador to South Africa during the transition from apartheid to democracy.

“It’s clear that the situation is not comparable 1:1, but we’re getting very close,” added Liel, who together with other left-wing Israelis a few years ago provocatively started referring to the status quo in the West Bank as apartheid.

Nelson Mandela and Israel's ambassador to Israel Alon Liel (photo credit: courtesy: Alon Liel)
Nelson Mandela and Israel’s ambassador to Israel Alon Liel (photo credit: courtesy: Alon Liel)

Liel and fellow activists such as Amiram Goldblum started bandying about the A-word in relation to the West Bank to shock Israelis into action. “But in the last few years we saw that the Israeli public doesn’t mind the idea of being an apartheid state,” Liel said bitterly. “We thought Israelis would hate it when we say apartheid, but it doesn’t bother them.”

Pogrund, whom he knows well, has been “recruited for Israel’s hasbara apparatus,” Liel added, using a Hebrew term for pro-Israel advocacy. But the soft-spoken Pogrund remains unfazed by such criticism, retorting that Liel and other Israelis who use the apartheid accusation to attack Israel are “useful idiots.” Their words are ineffective at home and will cause untold and unfair damage abroad, he says.

“They are reflecting the despair of the left. Because they got nowhere and they see this place just sliding into catastrophe. And they’re scared — rightly so. So they latch onto the word apartheid because it’s simple, direct and people can understand it.”

The apartheid parallel is not only historically inaccurate, Pogrund argued, it is also entirely useless. “Instead of talking about how to end the occupation, we’re arguing over whether it is apartheid or not.”

‘The apartheid word is potent. My worry is that too many people here, especially in government, don’t understand the danger’

Over nearly 300 pages, “Drawing Fire” recounts not only the various forms of discrimination that existed (and still exist) in South Africa and Israel, but also devotes much attention to the origins of the “Israel is apartheid” claim and the boycott movement, which feeds on such accusations.

The juxtaposition of Israel and apartheid gained pace with the 2001 “World Conference against Racism” in Durban, which turned into an anti-Israel hate-fest, and has since become a staple of anti-Israel agitation. And it is growing in influence, Pogrund warned. “The apartheid word is potent. My worry is that too many people here, especially in government, don’t understand the danger of it.”

Indeed, apartheid is so explosive that Pogrund’s publishers urged him to remove the word from the title of his book. “Drawing Fire” was originally called “Is Israel Apartheid?” but after US Secretary John Kerry caused a little scandal in April when he warned that Israel could turn into an apartheid state in the absence of a peace deal, the powers that be at Rowman and Littlefield worried that the A-word could hurt sales.

As angry as Pogrund is about people comparing Israel to apartheid, he is at least as furious at the government in Jerusalem for making it so easy. Rather than blame the world for condemning Israel, we ought to look at ourselves, he urged. “We go on very arrogantly saying the world is against us and that they’re all anti-Semites. Nonsense! We’re feeding the crocodile, and the crocodile comes and bites.”

As he was writing “Drawing Fire,” Pogrund became increasingly aware that both the right and the left in Israel would dislike his book. “But my attitude is to stand in the middle and say: a plague on the whole lot of you! You’re all lying, you’re all doing horrible things, and you’re all pointing the finger of blame at the other. And you’re all to blame. We’re all to blame.”

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