Benjamin Pogrund spent decades battling apartheid as a journalist in South Africa. Since moving to Israel two decades ago, he has passionately defended the country against charges that it too is an apartheid state.
But at the age of 87, Pogrund is having second thoughts. He says that if Israel moves ahead with plans to annex parts of the West Bank, he will have no choice but to declare that his adopted homeland has become a modern-day version of apartheid-era South Africa.
“There will be Israeli overlords in an occupied area. And the people over whom they will be ruling will not have basic rights,” Pogrund said in an interview in his leafy backyard garden. “That will be apartheid. And we will merit the charge. And that is something that worries me gravely because it exposes us to huge dangers.”
Pogrund, a prolific author who is working on a new book about South African political history, says he feels so despondent he’s been unable to write about looming annexation.
“I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Quite frankly, I just feel so bleak about it, that it is so stupid and ill-advised and arrogant,” he said.
For years, Israel’s harshest detractors have labeled it an apartheid state to describe its rule over Palestinians who were denied basic rights in occupied areas. For the most part, Israel has successfully pushed back against the fraught word.
But as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nears launching his annexation moves as part of President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan – perhaps as early as next month – the term is increasingly becoming part of Israel’s political conversation.
Mainstream politicians who oppose annexation have begun to use the term. Disillusioned former military men bounce it around. Israel’s most popular political satire show, “Wonderful Country,” recently ran a spoof ad for a fictitious drone company that lifts Palestinians and flies them away from annexed land. The drone’s name: “Apart-High.”
“When you start doing these unilateral actions, you actually put yourself on a very slippery slope,” said Gadi Shamni, a retired Israeli general who once commanded the West Bank. Inevitably, Palestinians in annexed areas will demand the rights of citizens, including the right to vote, which will “eventually create some kind of apartheid,” he warned.
Apartheid refers to the system of racial discrimination enforced by South Africa’s white-minority regime from 1948 until 1994. It was characterized by separate housing and public facilities for blacks and whites, bans on interracial relations and disenfranchisement of the Black majority. Branded a pariah state, South Africa peacefully dismantled apartheid in 1994, when democratic elections brought Nelson Mandela to become its first Black president.
Supporters of the Israeli government are outraged at comparisons to South Africa. They note that Israel’s Arab minority, about 20% of the population, can vote and, even if there is some discrimination, have risen high in business, politics and entertainment. They say the West Bank is “disputed,” not occupied, and defend Israel’s presence in the West Bank in terms of security or the deep Jewish connection to what religious Jews call biblical Judea and Samaria.
The comparison is “deeply offensive,” said Eugene Kontorovich, head of the international law department at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think tank in Jerusalem that frequently advises Netanyahu’s government.
“Apartheid was a system in which a minority white government in South Africa ruled over the Black majority,” he said. “They taxed them. They drafted them, and they passed every law under which they lived.”
He said none of these conditions apply, with most Palestinians governed by the self-rule Palestinian Authority, which has limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank.
Pogrund sees things differently, the result of his years of experience in South Africa.
As a reporter and editor at the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, Pogrund documented many of the horrors of apartheid.
These included the infamous Sharpeville massacre in which South African police fired on black protesters, killing 69 people, and exposés about prison conditions and the torture of Black prison inmates. He was jailed for refusing to identify an informant, put on trial for his reporting, saw his home ransacked by police and sometimes required a bodyguard. He visited Mandela, a trusted source and friend, in prison. Last year, he received a “National Order,” one of South Africa’s most prestigious awards.
Pogrund left South Africa after his newspaper was closed in 1985 under government pressure. After time in London and the United States, he moved to Israel in 1997.
Pogrund is a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He describes the West Bank occupation – in which Israeli settlers and Palestinians live under different sets of laws – with words like “tyrannical,” “oppression” and “brutality.” But he has always stopped short of calling it apartheid, believing the term is uniquely evil.
“It’s a deadly word,” he said.
Advocates of the term argue that it already is applicable in the West Bank because, despite the existence of the Palestinian Authority, Israel has ultimate, de facto control over the territory. It controls entry and exit, water and other resources and overall security. Under interim peace accords, it also maintains full control over 60 per cent of the West Bank where all settlements are located and tens of thousands of Palestinians live but have no voice.
As appalling as he finds the occupation, Pogrund has argued for years in articles, lectures and a 2014 book that the situation lacks the “intentionality” and “institutionalized” racism of South Africa.
Where South Africa’s system was designed with the intent of creating second-class people based on their skin color, he believes Israel’s poor treatment of Palestinians are rooted in security concerns.
“There’s discrimination. There’s oppression. It’s not apartheid,” he said.
Pogrund said he began to have misgivings several years ago when the Israeli parliament passed its “Nation State Law,” which declared the country to be the “national home” of the Jewish people while appearing to downgrade the status of the Arab minority.
“Annexation will take us right over the edge,” he said.
In a recent interview, Netanyahu said Palestinians would remain in “enclaves” and “remain Palestinian subjects.” Some reports have suggested that Netanyahu may scale back the annexation to help minimize international criticism, but Pogrund says size doesn’t matter.
During his time in London, he recalled a shopper picking up a package of grapes, seeing they were a product of South Africa and putting them down in disgust. He fears Israel will be in a similar position.
“You’ll be carrying the apartheid stigma,” he said. “We are heading straight into self-inflicting (this) on our ourselves. We are applying apartheid, the hated word of the second half of the 20th century.”