Top journalist penetrates the rhetoric: Is Israel apartheid?

  • Geoff Pogrund pic 2 lo res
“Living in apartheid South Africa was easy in moral terms - good versus evil,” says Benjamin Pogrund, former deputy editor of the leading anti-apartheid newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, whose new book, Drawing Fire, investigates accusations of apartheid in Israel.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Aug 27, 2014

“In Israel, both Jews and Arabs have right on their side, through history, land, religion, geography and tradition. In the long struggle between them, neither side has always behaved well.”

In “Drawing Fire” Pogrund (pictured) analyses attempts by BDS and others to label Israel an apartheid state, and Israel’s actions, particularly the West Bank settlements. He spares no criticism of either, aiming at facts rather than political rhetoric. He draws from sources such as his years as a journalist in apartheid South Africa, and the Yakar Center for Social Concern which he founded in 1997 in Jerusalem to foster dialogue between Jews, Muslims, Christians, Palestinians and Israelis.

A turning point for Pogrund was the 2001 UN Conference Against Racism in Durban, where he was part of the Israeli government delegation. He was outraged at the distorted, bleak picture of Israel portrayed there.

“Israel is not a perfect society,” he says. “We deal with our neighbourhood sometimes well, sometimes badly, but we are not the rogue society you read about.

“I took the criticisms and deconstructed them: What do the words mean? Then I looked at what we [Israelis] do. Both left and right will hate my book. I want it to appeal to people who want a rational approach and information. People like BDS lie their heads off - I try and counter that.

“But they are getting ammunition because we feed the crocodile with our own actions. I am against the occupation - it brutalises the Palestinians and brutalises our people. When you have an occupation with soldiers with guns facing people, horrible things happen. I normally rate the settlements as the biggest problem. Most are there for economic reasons, but 10 - 15 per cent are zealots with rifles and hate.”

Pogrund takes a range of social indicators in Israel proper inside the Green Line, and compares how they operated in apartheid South Africa for blacks, and how they operate in Israel for everyone, including Arabs.

He looks at voting, freedom of movement, speech, association, sex, health insurance, social welfare, prison, right to work, trade unions, legal systems and many others. There is almost a complete absence of the kind of ‘apartheid’ syndrome claimed by Israel’s accusers.

Then he examines the area including Israel and the West Bank. There, broader issues like religion, international status, third party intervention and violence sometimes have similar rings to South Africa and in other instances are totally different. Two chapters examine Israel’s numerous critics, ranging from those who condemn it for its actions, and those who reject it for its existence.

Pogrund goes into depth about the idealistic and survivalist threads running through Zionism from its origins, the establishment of Israel and events since then - with a full chapter devoted to the occupation of the West Bank, about which he is scathing.

“Israeli settlement there began out of idealistic belief. It became zealotry, which has gained its ends through mass deceit, land theft, corruption and abuse of law. The result, in Israel’s military occupation, is the oppression of Palestinians.”

Some political analysts say the two-state solution is dead, that events have made it no longer viable. Pogrund disagrees: “It is the only solution. It has got to work. There are people who know only Israelis with a gun. Three years ago at Bar Ilan University, (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu declared the two state solution as policy, although he has undermined it since then and the present coalition includes people like Naphtali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, who are totally against it.

Pogrund is elated about the new democratic South Africa. “After the Rand Daily Mail closed, I was in despair. But kyk hoe lyk ons nou! Boycotts contributed to apartheid’s fall, but it needed a giant external event - the end of the Cold War, when both sides lost their patrons.

“Israelis and Palestinians don’t seem to be able to manage on their own, unless the leaders suddenly get some steel in their spines. It needs a giant event to bring people to the realisation that we can’t go on like this, both sides have to back off somewhere. No one is going to get all they want.”

People-to-people contact through the apartheid years across racial lines was critical in building South African democracy, he says. “The apartheid government tried to prevent people being in contact, but they climbed over the fences, made friends and began to trust each other. When things began to change, people knew each other and had enough goodwill to work together.

“That’s what we must do in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians. It is happening, but the split is gigantic. A few years ago at Yakar we searched for Israelis and Arabs working at crossing the lines. There is a huge amount, more than there was under apartheid.”

Religion played a very different role in South Africa compared to Israel. “The religious component is very dangerous,” says Pogrund. “In South Africa our Christianity was not only a unifying factor, it was a factor against apartheid.

“People could appeal to Christian morality. But in Israel religion is totally divisive and getting worse because of ISIS, Boko Haram and Muslim infiltration into Europe. Everyone is caught up in this.

“We in Israel are right on the edge of it. My single biggest fear is the flashpoint at al Aqsa Mosque and the [Western] Wall in Jerusalem. You’ve got crazies on both sides. Muslims say the Jews want to destroy the mosque. We have Jews saying: ‘Let’s destroy the mosque.’ Nothing is being done, but it is a danger. On Fridays, 50 000 Muslims come to pray at the mosque.”

The whole West is scared stiff about the radical Islamist question, he says. “We are not alone, there are close exchanges among governments throughout the world. The AU is scared about it. The entire EU defended us [on Gaza]. Russia is terrified of terrorism. Arab states are not making that big a noise - they don’t want Hamas. At an intelligence level even the Palestinians work with us.”

Pogrund is disappointed that there seems no hope of South Africa playing a role in the Mideast today. “When 1994 [the democratic elections] happened I was filled with hope. I thought Israel and South Africa had an immense amount to offer each other - with technology, education and so on. For example Israel’s success in solving its water problem - for the first time, we are restocking the Jordan River rather than taking water.

“I saw ANC links to the PLO as important. (Former President Thabo) Mbeki tried but he failed. Now the atmosphere is so poisoned I don’t think much can be done.”

Two key ideological issues obstruct South African involvement in Israel: the ethnic state and the one-state principle.

“In the South African Struggle the whole emphasis was against ethnicity which the apartheid government was pushing. But I say: What is wrong with an ethnic state? If a group of people want an ethnic state it is their business.

“For example, the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic state of Yemen, Pakistan. Have you ever heard of a Christian citizen of Saudi Arabia? You might not like it but no-one objects to it. And in the South African Struggle we insisted on one unitary state. But one size doesn’t fit all - we have different people and circumstances.

“At this point South Africa is irrelevant. It must examine its attitude towards ethnicity, and understand that what suits South Africa does not necessarily suit everyone else. A unitary state is not for all. What gives me some hope is that the South African government has remained firm, has not responded to the shouting in the streets [to sever ties with Israel or change its support for the two-state solution].”

The blockade of Gaza should end, he says. “It hasn’t worked in pressuring Gazans to reject Hamas, or preventing missiles. Hamas is correct to say the blockade must end. But how do you give free entry to people who want to kill you?

“How do you open a sea port and airport - which they deserve - unless you’re certain they are not going to send missiles to kill you? The blockade must end, but it must be on the basis that we are safe.”

Most people don’t realise how small Israel is. Recently Netanyahu took foreign diplomats to show them the vulnerability of Ben-Gurion Airport - which is just a few miles from the coast - to rocket attacks.

“Ben-Gurion carries 90 per cent of our people traffic in and out of the country. Anyone with a rocket can bring down a plane. Well, the nightmare is coming true. Hamas has said they will fire at the airport. They have sealed their own fate with that statement.

“The safety of Ben-Gurion is a game-changer: The moment those rockets are aimed at it, everything else becomes irrelevant and academic. We will not yield an inch until we are sure our airport is not in danger.”

Will Pogrund’s book have any impact in South Africa, where hostility to Israel is rising in many quarters, among BDS, Cosatu and others who demonise Israel? Or in the staunchly Zionist Jewish community which is increasingly nervous and defensive about it?

As a factual resource, it will be valuable to anyone who genuinely seeks an understanding of the real situation on the ground, behind the political rhetoric.

Sadly, reliance on actual facts is not the motivator for many political crusaders on the issue of Israel and Palestine - which is precisely what Pogrund wants to challenge.


  1. 4 Choni 28 Aug
    Seems like Mr. Pogrund has made up his mind about the good and evil of Israeli society.  (The 'settlers' are the evil ones)
    If only Mr. Pogrund would infuse just a little bit of Torah into his mind, he would see that the principal aspect of a Jewish state is one that lives apart from the nations.
    Our Torah is filled with passages where non-Jews are prohibited from the same rights as Jews.
    If that is "apartheid" then so be it. THAT IS TORAH.
  2. 3 adam levy 28 Aug
    Who needs ISIS when we have our own Choni!
  3. 2 shmuel 29 Aug
    And who needs Bishop Tutu when we have Adam Levy ?
  4. 1 Gary Selikow 29 Aug
    Adam Levy you are not exactly full of peace and love with your venomous hatred of Israel and Israelis , so I wouldnt call anyone out on extremism or hatred


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