By Brian J Brown, author of ‘Apartheid South Africa! Apartheid Israel?’
Benjamin Pogrund and I were schoolboys in Cape Town when in 1948 White South Africa’s first apartheid regime introduced its pernicious policies. As adults, neither of us bought into a political ideology that was fascist, racist, constant in its institutionalised discrimination against Black people, and destructive of democracy. Both of us sought to affirm the moral values espoused by the faiths of Judaism and Christianity and both came to bite the hand that fed White prejudice and privilege.
Pogrund became a distinguished journalist and deputy editor of the anti-apartheid newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail. As a Methodist minister I became deputy to The Christian Institute of Southern Africa’s esteemed director and Afrikaner dissident, Dr C F Beyers Naudé. In a society where the ‘liberal’ press could be ambiguous as to the brutality of the regime and its web of deception, the CI relied on those like Pogrund to ‘tell it like it is’. Inevitably, this denunciation of state-evil had painful consequences. The RDM was crippled by censorship, the establishment of a state-funded and compliant rival and the flight of conservative readers made uncomfortable by its truths. It closed in 1985. The CI was banned by the regime, together with its officers, in 1977. My banning was renewed annually for thirteen years due to calls made for Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) to be implemented against the apartheid regime. Pogrund views BDS as a major reason for the White population coming to give up on apartheid and allow for a non-racial democracy.
Fast-forward to more recent times. My erstwhile ally Pogrund having settled in Israel in 1997, he became a redoubtable and state-encouraged opponent of those of us who declared Israel to be replicating the policies of apartheid – notably Jewish colleagues like Joe Slovo, Denis Goldberg and Ronnie Kasrils. As leading figures in Nelson Mandela’s liberation movement they had sacrificed much in opposing the progressive dispossession of the Black ethnic group by the White ethnic group – of nationality, land, human rights and basic freedoms – then prevalent in South Africa. Soon thereafter they would observe this racist ideology of ethnic superiority being replicated against millions of Palestinians by successive Israeli regimes.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ensured that no Palestinian can vote as a national of an internationally recognised state in the territory between the Mediterranean ocean and the Jordan river. Palestinians in the occupied territories have no state to call their own and no Palestinian (Arab-Israeli) living in Israel is regarded as a national of that state for the reason that Israel is a state for Jews alone. As apartheid South Africa was a state for Whites alone. So much for supposed democracy. The suffering resultant upon Israel’s violation of international law over fifty-six years of West Bank occupation, the unyielding blockade and siege of Gaza, and the ‘annexation’ of East Jerusalem intensifies day by day as an ultra-nationalist and ultra-orthodox regime implements with intent its policies of ethnic dispossession.
In my book of 2021, ‘Apartheid South Africa! Apartheid Israel?’ (where the answer to the question is given in the affirmative) I take issue with Pogrund’s robust denial of the State of Israel’s apartheid credentials and his assertion that ‘the differences prevailing still outweigh the similarities’. A significant concession to this was his understanding that putting West Bank Palestinians under the control of the Israeli State, while denying them citizenship, is apartheid. Pogrund saw any Palestinian ‘state’ emerging on such limited terms as akin to South Africa’s Bantustans or homelands; ‘a nonsense state’. Given the assurances that Netanyahu has given to the more than half-million illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank as to their assured permanency, allied with their Israeli citizenship, he could have added that even a Palestinian ‘nonsense state’ will never be allowed to emerge.
Pogrund’s reappraisal, as carried in The Guardian newspaper, is thus very significant. He does not mince words and his words are chosen with care: ‘I have long rejected claims that Israel is an apartheid state. Now I believe that is where it is heading…the accusation is becoming fact…Israel (is) being driven into inhuman, cruel behaviour beyond any defence…(we) deny Palestinians any hope of freedom or normal lives…1200 West Bank Palestinians are reported to be imprisoned without trial…Settlers kill Palestinians and destroy houses and cars, courts seldom intervene, soldiers stand by and watch…the apartheid label is correct…I am now witnessing the apartheid with which I grew up in South Africa’.
Accusations of antisemitism would be anticipated were I to use Pogrund’s descriptive words of ‘power grabbing, fascism and racism’ when defining the nature of the current Israeli regime. His revised conclusion on comparing the two societies is that the similarities now require him to declare the reality of Israel’s apartheid. He cautions that thought is needed about making these comparisons. That is why many of us who testify to an apartheid Israel distinguish between the ‘petty apartheid’ of enforced segregation, which Israel does not practise, and the ‘grand apartheid’ of ethnic cleansing and dispossession which Israel does practise.
Although this comparative analysis is compelling, Pogrund does not develop the complementary legal analysis which human rights organisations, both in Israel and internationally, use to come to the same conclusion. This surprises. As a long-standing human rights activist he is conversant with the conventions and statutes that define apartheid as a crime against humanity; a crime of which Israel is now guilty.
Pogrund’s concluding references to the dynamics of the call for BDS against Israel disappoints. He understands that protagonists of BDS will use it as a weapon against an apartheid Israel. But does he lament the apartheid policies of his nation essentially because they deny millions of Palestinians freedom, dignity, the right to return home and even life itself, or because they now provide a powerful weapon for those he suggests would destroy Israel? Why demonise a BDS pursuit whose efficacy in promoting non-violent change in South Africa he has acknowledged? In the histories of apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel one can point to a minority of BDS activists who, in his words, would spread lies about racist regimes either through ignorance and/or malevolence. But his courageous and close engagement with Black liberation leaders in South Africa would have made him aware that their long ignored BDS endeavours were not motivated by desires to destroy either Whites or their State. Rather, the supporters of Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko shared invariably in the pursuit of equality for all and the vision of the indivisibility of freedom. It is nothing less in regard to the ethos of the Palestinian activists who lead their BDS movement today.