When artist, educator and activist Adam Broomberg discusses “apartheid Israel” he knows what he is talking about. He was born in Johannesburg in 1970 and grew up in South Africa during the height of apartheid.
He matriculated at King David School in Linksfield, which he describes as “a Zionist Jewish school”.
“Luckily, I had an older brother, Paul, who was very politically active,” says Broomberg. “He was one of the founders of the End Conscription Campaign, the ECC.”
By the age of 15, the younger Broomberg also became politically active, and with some schoolmates set up an organisation called Links.
“We used to make pamphlets and comics to explain just in very rudimentary terms what apartheid was. And how the end of apartheid might not mean the end of white people in the country, basic shit like that.”
At Wits he joined the left-wing National Union of South African Students (Nusas).
“I was relatively active, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself a revolutionary, because I smoked too much weed. I remember at a Nusas meeting some BSS [Black Students’ Society] comrade calling me aside saying, ‘Dude, you have to choose between politics and drugs.’”
Broomberg chuckles. “I never made that choice until recently.”
His other brother Jonny, who was studying medicine, was constantly in “those running battles at Wits with the riot police”.
“I remember Jonny running with his medical pack. His role was patching up all the people shot with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.”
Broomberg left South Africa for the UK in 1990 to avoid conscription. He also pursued his art career, which has evolved into teaching.
He is a visiting professor for Media Arts at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe in Germany.
In an Instagram post about the Hamas attacks on Israel, Broomberg said he’s split in two. “I’m feeling terror for my family, my nephew has been called up and feeling terror for my friends who are still stuck in the cage” [of Gaza].
I ask him to explain this.
“My sister, whom I love to bits, has lived in Israel for more than 40 years. She has three kids and she’s got a grandchild. Her husband fought in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in Shatila in the 1980s. My nephew fought in 2019 in the war against Gaza. He’s now being called up again. I worry for their lives … as anyone would worry about their sister and her family.”
Equally, Broomberg has many close comrades in Palestine.
“We need to hold two positions at the same time. One is we can feel absolute horror and empathy for every victim and their families in the horrific Hamas attack.
“At the same time, we need to be able to hold empathy for civilians in Palestine. I don’t need to revert to a tribal-like identity which says I cannot support my sister and my Palestinian friends,” he said.
“Because of the Israeli apartheid war and the intifada there’s been no mixing of Palestinians and Israelis like there was in South Africa.
“So, there’s little curiosity about the other, there’s just the othering.
“When we hear this vitriol and this anger coming from the Jewish community it’s as if every Palestinian is bloodthirsty. For God’s sake, out of the 2.1 million people in Gaza one million are children — they are not bloodthirsty!”
It was different in South Africa “because we brushed up against each other, we smelled each other, there were jols. It was incredibly sensual in the way that we mixed it against the laws. We grew to love each other.”
Broomberg’s progressive stance on Palestinian rights hasn’t endeared him everywhere. Long-time Jewish friends have been writing to him “with such venom” because he has “betrayed” his people.
“I’ve got old friends saying, ‘I can’t wait to string you up and kill you.’”
In Germany he is an important pro-Palestine voice because of his Holocaust background through his Jewish ancestors, as well as his anti-apartheid involvement.
“The mixture of all those things has made it very difficult to silence me even though the German state has done a good job of it,” he says. “Every newspaper in this country was calling me a hateful anti-Semite who ‘advocates’ for terrorism against Jews. In May, I was at a commemoration – not even a demonstration – where I was arrested by the German riot police, very violently.”
He lost his job as a professor in Hamburg, and took a short tenure as an arts lecturer in Karlsruhe. “What they wanted to do was to surgically remove anyone in cultural institutions or universities who was showing solidarity with Palestine.”
He believes it is worse than 1980s South Africa because many universities were then bastions of the left.
The recent developments in Germany have left him deeply concerned.
“This country has been doing everything it can to silence pretty much any Palestinian-led events or meetings. And it’s banned all the Jewish progressive organisations.
“It’s McCarthyism what’s happening here.”
Broomberg lives in Berlin, where he has had death threats left outside the door of his apartment. But it is nothing compared to the war raging in Palestine and Israel with the mounting loss of lives and the growing humanitarian crisis.
“It’s pretty much the darkest period I have ever witnessed,” he says.