/ 24 November 2006

Pogrund tour runs aground

A lecture tour by Benjamin Pogrund, a former South African journalist now living in Israel, and his Palestinian associate has been called off in the wake of the controversy around Israel’s shelling of Gaza.

However, the fate of the tour was already in the balance after threats by the South African-based Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) to demonstrate outside the lecture venues.

Pogrund, former Rand Daily Mail deputy editor and now director of the Centre for Social Concern at Yakar, and Walid Salem, journalist and director of Panorama, the Palestinian Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development in East Jerusalem, would have spoken in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban. A PSC branch organised the Durban meeting.

Their Johannesburg talk was to have been hosted by the Goethe Institute, recently under fire for declining to host a meeting to be addressed by Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils after Kasrils accused Israelis of behaving like Nazis.

Salem and Pogrund are two of the three editors of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, a collection of papers by and discussions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Pogrund, currently in South Africa, said: “We’re committed to working for non-violent change in Israel-Palestine. We believe in people talking to each other. We talk about ending the occupation and a two-state solution.

“South Africa … has two lessons to offer — the importance of contact between people and creating trust across lines and divisions, and the ANC’s lessons on non-violence …

“This seems to have offended a small group of people here who are opposed to Israelis and Palestinians working together and whose basic aims include the destruction of Israel.”

In an email dated November 1, PSC spokesperson Salim Vally said that “if any public event featuring Panorama and Yakar does go ahead in Gauteng, we will be demonstrating outside … We also call on our comrades and friends in other parts of South Africa to take similar action.”

Addressing Salem, Vally writes: “Dear Walid, we suggest that you would not appreciate the embarrassment of facing a demonstration or picket … Perhaps the best option would be for you to cancel this trip completely.

“Certainly, your speaking on the same platform as a Zionist like Benjamin Pogrund will not endear you to the vast majority of Palestinian solidarity activists and other social justice activists in South Africa who support the Palestinian cause.”

Explaining why the PSC wanted the tour called off, Vally said the committee had widely canvassed Palestinian groups. One of these, the Palestinian Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, complained that the Yakar website “never once mentions ending the occupation and oppression as the means to obtain … peace”.

Asked how he squared stopping the lecture tour with freedom of speech, Vally, a former chairperson of the Freedom of Expression Institute, responded: “The freedom of speech … we enjoy in our country can be partly attributed to the isolation of the erstwhile apartheid regime.

“Palestinians do not have basic human rights and yearn for this … The boycott campaign against Israel … can thus be a catalyst for genuine peace, and the democratic rights of all, including the right of freedom of speech.”

Pogrund was an anti-apartheid activist whose exposure in the Rand Daily Mail of South African prison conditions led to a four-year trial. He has been a particular focus of Vally’s campaign, being accused, among other things, of “slander and cant”.