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Notes from Limmud 2014

Drawing Fire: Investigating the accusations of apartheid in Israel

Benjamin Pogrund

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[This was my third attempt to hear Benjamin Pogrund speak, and I'm glad I finally managed it. Benjamin Pogrund is known for having been an anti-apartheid journalist in South Africa; for me he's also the closest thing I have to a famous relative, as he is a second cousin of my late grandfather. When I went to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, there was a placard there showing the front page of the Rand Daily Mail from July 11 1969, with the headline "Gandar and Pogrund Guilty on 2 Counts" of contravening the Prisons Act, and a photo of him in the aftermath of a police baton charge against students protesting a government clampdown on black universities. I felt proud that a member of my family was amongst those that bucked the trend and stood up against that regime for that which was right.]

[This talk constitutes a plug for the speaker's book of the same name.] The speaker got huge pressure from his American publisher not to call the book Is Israel Apartheid?; they took objection against having the word "Apartheid" so large on the book cover.

The speaker was born in Cape Town. As a teenager, he got involved in politics; he was a member of the anti-apartheid Liberal Party, until it got closed down. He wrote for the Rand Daily Mail, and became a fixture of it; his whole life was spent investigating, reporting and analysing apartheid.

The newspaper was closed down in 1986 because they were too successful in opposing apartheid. The speaker was left unemployable, and came to Britain for eight years. He is grateful to Britain for taking him in (they gave him a piece of paper signed by the Home Secretary giving him the right to enter Britain however he got there, when he had no passport for five years himself). He eventually landed up in Israel at the invitation of R. Mickey Rosen of Yakar in Hendon, to start a dialogue centre in Jerusalem. They promoted there dialogue between Jews and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Jews and Christians.

He speaks today with a great sense of alarm, first because far too few people realise and understand the potency and danger of the apartheid accusations against Israel; secondly, because too many people dismiss the attacks on Israel as the work of antisemites, Israel-hating Muslims or self-hating Jews.

All these groups are indeed critics or enemies, but far too few people recognise it is our own [i.e. Israel's] actions and deeds which serve as ammunition to our critics and enemies.

If the apartheid accusation is correct, we deserve to be condemned. Apartheid in South Africa was an evil system of racial discrimination and oppression against the black people forming 80% of the population. There was a mass of laws determining your whole life: where you were born, which school you went to (which determined the level of your education), what work you could have, how much you would earn, who you could marry, where you could live, every last aspect of your life: which bus or train you took, which beach or park bench you could sit on, where you were buried.

The question is: Are we like that in Israel? Because that is a heavy burden.

Israel inside the Green Line

In Israel inside the Green Line there is an Arab minority of 20 or 21%. This is not unusual. Other minority communities of these kinds of numbers in the regime often suffer terribly, such as the Kurds in Turkey, the Roma in Greece, and so on.

In Israel, the Arab minority are treated quite well. They have the vote—and that to the speaker is important, coming from South Africa. How they use it is another matter, as they are disunited. They have citizenship and full rights: national health, national insurance, etc. Go to a hospital and you will find people of all kinds treated by people by all kinds. If that level of integration and acceptance could permeate the entire country, it would be paradise.

But there is discrimination, and severe discrimination, and it is to do with land. It goes back a century to the founding of the JNF to buy land in Palestine for the exclusive use and purchase of the Jewish yishuv. By 1948 [the year of Israel's independence], 5% of the land had been bought this way.

The War of Independence gained Israel 18% more land over what had been given to us in the [1947 UN] partition scheme.

6% of the land in Israel is privately owned: by the Church, the Waqf, and the Rothschilds. 93% is leasehold: it cannot be bought, and is rented from the State. Of that, 13% is JNF land. This is a heavy exclusion.

It is not watertight. Deals are done; there are land swaps. But 13% of land is debarred to the Arabs. So Arabs villages can't expand. And, with their population growth, this leads to overcrowding. And they can't build industry to get taxes, so it makes people poor and has a knock-on consequences on [lacuna].

This system has been challenged in court. The speaker believes it's an anachronism and has to go one of these days. It reflects badly on Israeli democracy, but to compare it with apartheid is utterly wrong.

The West Bank

The West Bank, however, is a different matter. We are colonialists there. We occupy the land, we plunder the resources (using local labour) we have a tight hold on the economy. Almost all the Palestinians' goods come from Israel, and we have a stranglehold on them. Our young men and women with guns control the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Horrible things happen under occupation. People get shot because they don't hear the command to stop, on the grounds that they could have a knife or a gun. Sometimes they do, so the paranoia is justified, but it's still a tragedy.

There was the case of two Palestinian teenagers shot dead at a demonstration. The army denied it, staying they weren't using live ammunition, but one of the families found the end of the bullet in the backpack. And the army did another investigation and found that among the soldiers was one man, a driver, who wasn't supposed to be there, and had loaded live ammunition.

We brutalise Palestinians, and we brutalise ourselves. Because these young soldiers take things back home. But word of this state of affairs is getting out, via the likes of Breaking the Silence, and books and newspaper reports.

Over the years, a giant web of rules and restrictions has developed, to maintain the occuptation, and it leads to a state of cruelty. That's not unique to Israel; it was a marked feature of South Africa and is common to any society where one people has power over another. It also led to mass corruption on our part in the form of the settlements, [as documented in] the Talia Sasson report. [Some years ago, Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon asked the Attorney General for a lawyer to assess the status of the settlements. Read the report; it is totally challenging. She said the state was subverting its own rule of law to the abuse of legal process.

[To] the critics of Israel [the speaker says:] Yes, we have faults, but if you take the basis of a story, enlarge it and distort it, you end up with something that has no relevance to what actually happens.

A detail: Steinitz, the Minister of Finance, was given an award by a settler body, and was interviewed on the radio, and said something he should never have said publically: that the previous year he and Sharon had secretly doubled the budget for the settlements.

[There is the issue of] the separate roads [for the West Bank settlements and the Palestinians, and that of] the security barrier misused to grab land from Palestinians.

But it's not apartheid: It's a combination of greed, religious zeal, mistaken he thinks, and above all security—and that is the magic word in Israel; it determines everythng. Security has justified the barrier and the separate roads. Except that the separate roads were because of firebombs and rocks being thrown at cars. So we built the settler roads, but [the separation is determined by] the car, not the person. Cars with the Israeli number plates can travel on them; those with Palestinian ones cannot... but it doesn't matter who's driving the car! (Whether it was necessary to build these roads at huge costs in security terms the speaker is not too sure.) But there is none of the focused, determined racism which was the hallmark of South African apartheid. So we should call it occupation, or tyranny. "Apartheid" can be used for many things; but because the speaker lived through the genuine article himself, he does not wish to see the term misused.

But we are on a slippery slope. In October Defence Minister Yalon announced that separate buses were being provided for settlers on the West Bank. He quoted one woman as saying "I don't want my daughter on the same buses as Arab workers." The moment you segregate public transport, that is apartheid. The Attorney General, though, said you can't do this; you have to consult me about this! This is still being settled.

If we do annexe parts of the West Bank and maintain seperate legal systems, we've colonised, we've become the formal owners; and if we deny full rights to Palestinians, that will be apartheid, no question about it, and we would deserve any condemnation which comes from the world. But that is not the case at present.

So why is this an accusation? The apartheid attack was first made in 1971, four years after the Six Day War, by the Soviet Union. The Soviets were smarting from their support of the Arabs in the Six Day War.

The issue came back with a vengenance in 2001 at the Durban Anti-Racism conference, which the speaker attended. The accusation was made the NGO conference preceding the government one, and resulted in the only time the UN has refused to accept the recommendations of the preceding NGO conference, which was outright antisemitic. Then 9/11 happened a few days later, and the accusation went away; but it came back later.

South Africa is a fountainhead; it all comes from there. But it means South African blacks have misunderstood what is happening in Israel. The term is now used by Muslims, Muslim states, and blacks in South Africa and the US; and also Jews on the left, in Israel and beyond, who take this phrase out of despair because the counry is going further and further to the right.

Others are more determined. There are people behind all this who are very cynical and use it deliberately, even though they know better. And all those who [lacuna, presumably: follow them use the term without knowing how it is inaccurate]. It's easy; it's an easy phrase to adopt. You become "a useful idiot", in Lenin's phrase. The next step from that is BDS, which is even more cynical.

If you read their literature, they have three aims:

  1. Return to the 1967 borders. The speaker agrees to that, with adjustments: the Old City, Mt Scopus, the Jerusalem/Tel Aviv road in the Latrun area.
  2. Rights for Arab citizens. Which is insulting, because they [already] have rights.
  3. The right of return.

And that's the crux. This the trick that's being pulled. It sounds so rational, and humanitarian. In 1947 700,000 Arabs fled or were chased, and they have a definition as a refugee which is unique [amongst refugee populations in the world]: them and their descednants, including adopted children, a figure which now comes to 5-7m.

Against that is [lacuna; possibly this one was about the counterbalancing hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries who had to flee following Israeli independence and in the 1950s, whom no one is trying to claim a right of return for.]

UNWRA [the UN agency with responsibility for Palestinian refugees] has a unique status. It's self-serving. There are 28,000 workers in UNWRA. The Israeli government doesn't knock it, because if they didn't do the work, Israel would have to do it themselves. But they perpetuate the status, and keep the hopes of Palestinians alive whereas those who got transferred in other conflicts—the twelve million Germans transferred from Poland, the Sudetenland, etc at the end of the Second World War, the thirteen million transferred between India and Pakistan at the partition of India—have had to move on.

To give the right of return would mean the end of the Jewish state. And that's the whole purpose of Israel. We don't know what a Jewish state should be, but it exists nonetheless.

The people behind BDS know this; they go on pushing it, and people fall for it. Useful idiots again. The speaker doesn't believe he is exaggerating when he says [lacuna]

As long as we continue as we are with the occupation, the tide will rise against us. We're getting to the stage where people abroad have a sense of distaste: going to the supermarket, seeing "South Africa" in the past or "Israel" now, and putting the produce back down again. We've gone from David in 1967 to the bully boy now. Whatever we do, a bad slant is put on it.

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