‘Israel is not apartheid SA’

First-hand experience: Benjamin Pogrund was jailed during the struggle and now lives in Israel. (Clarissa Sosin)

First-hand experience: Benjamin Pogrund was jailed during the struggle and now lives in Israel. (Clarissa Sosin)

A revered journalist to some and an Israeli apologist to others, Benjamin Pogrund is here from Israel to receive a human rights award from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for his efforts in exposing injustices under apartheid.

But Pogrund has earned the ire of Palestinian activists for his insistence that there is no comparison between the state of Israel and apartheid South Africa.

You have won many awards but this one is from the Jewish Board of Deputies, an organisation that refused to take a side during the struggle against apartheid until very late but, with these awards, recognises Jews like yourself who did. Is the organisation co-opting people it once sidelined?

I think it’s in recognition of past failures.

I think the community did behave badly; I can understand why it happened. But I think there’s been a lot of recognition that they should have behaved in different ways.

What do you understand Zionism to be?

Zionism is a national liberation movement of the Jewish people – full stop.

Since the creation of the state, it has had trouble. There are the rightwingers on the West Bank and they try to justify it in terms of Zionism. But Zionism wasn’t meant to be oppressive. It was a liberation movement.

A lot of things have gone wrong within that definition. Things go wrong in any revolution anywhere. People take over and go in different directions. There are no straight lines in human behaviour ever.

I’m totally against the occupation of the West Bank. I think we have gone wrong there.

You would consider yourself a Zionist?

Oh, ja. I believe in Israel as a Jewish state. It’s not perfect. I’m worried about some of the aspects. But I think it is the right of the Jewish majority to decide how to run the state.

I don’t particularly like the idea of an ethnic or religious state.

On the other hand, what I object to is to single out Israel as the source of original sin. All the Arab states are Muslim.

Is that a fair comparison? They don’t have Israel’s complex history with displacement, for one.

So what? So every country has a different history. It’s all created.

Let’s talk about your beliefs. You don’t agree with what’s happening in the West Bank. What else?

I believe that discrimination against the Arabs in the state of Israel must be rooted out and I think we’re slowly making our way there. The biggest fault is the Law of Return, which gives Jews the automatic right to return and Arabs don’t have it.

Would you support a repeal of the law?

I don’t like it but I accept it as a realistic policy because the point of Israel is a haven for Jews.

And I believe in it because I know the history and because my family got wiped out.

Palestine’s show of force has been very foolish because it’s turned a lot of Jews to the right. I think Palestine has lost a lot of moral authority. You don’t gain friends when you take a baby and smash its head against a rock.

What of Israel’s moral authority when they respond with massive force?

Well, now you get into the argument of state power and what is terrorism. These are very deep questions of morality. Some people have slick, clever answers. I have lived too long and seen too much.

What is the status of the Jewish community in South Africa, in your opinion?

In the past, I had big differences with the Jewish community because they treated me like a pariah.

There weren’t many whites around who were close to [Pan Africanist Congress leader] Robert Sobukwe, who were friendly with Nelson Mandela and all the other ANC leaders. I was in prison, prosecuted.

Since then I have watched the community and things have changed. I admire them and I think they have a difficult path because there is virulence in this country against Israel. A lot of the attacks on Israel emanate from South Africa.

Are you assuming all South African Jews are representatives of the state of Israel?

They represent the Jewish community and it’s a rather strange position to be in. Because they also have an adherence to Jews as a whole and to Israel and they have to pick their path.

They have a difficulty because the government is ambivalent. In practice, the government over the last few years has become more critical of Israel in its actions and that creates difficulties here.

You have been vocal against drawing parallels between the apartheid state and Israel, saying the comparison is false. Can you give us a succinct answer as to why that is?

Ten or 11 years ago I had cancer. I had major surgery in one of the leading hospitals in Israel. My surgeon was Jewish, my anaesthetist was an Arab. My doctors and nurses were Jews and Arabs. At this personal level, if anyone wants to speak me about Israel being apartheid, I say, oh, for heaven’s sake, man, what are you talking about?

Things are exactly the same for everyone. There is discrimination. But it’s not unique, unfortunately. There are racists everywhere.

Even if Israel itself is not an apartheid state, has it not acted as such in the Palestinian territories through its settlements, Israeli-only roads, separate legal systems there, and check points?

We did not annex the West Bank, we occupied it. It’s not apartheid, it’s a tyranny.

So it’s worse than apartheid?

Whatever people will tell you about the evils of occupation, I’ll outdo it. But it’s not apartheid and I object to the use of the word.

The purpose is to have Israel declared as illegitimate a country as apartheid South Africa was and that would open the way to international sanctions. That is what I object to.

Your critics say you’re being used as a spin doctor for the Israeli state. Your response?

Balls. Such rubbish. I have no connection with the Israeli government, none whatsoever. I only worked with them once in my life in 2001.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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