Benjamin Pogrund was deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, closed down because of its stand against apartheid. He has lived in Jerusalem since 1997. In 2014 his book Drawing Fire rejected the ‘apartheid’ accusation being aimed at Israel. In August 2023, writing in Haaretz / The Guardian, Pogrund seemed to change his mind. Salo Aizenberg, author of Amnesty International’s Cruel Assault on Israel: Systematic Lies, Errors, Omissions, and Double Standards (2022) and A Threshold Crossed: Documenting HRW’s ‘Apartheid’ Fabrication’ (2022), responds to Pogrund in this Open Letter. Benjamin Pogrund has been invited to reply.
Dear Benjamin Pogrund,
Your recent article arguing that Israel is now an apartheid state, only six years after you emphatically argued it was not, was dismaying to read. Labeling Israel as apartheid has become more normalised in recent years in large part due to reports issued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International branding Israel as a criminally racist regime that must abolish itself as a Jewish state in order to absolve itself of its sins. These NGOs hope that branding Israel as apartheid will advance the isolation of Israel in world forums and lead to its dissolution. While perhaps your aim is to improve Israel, your words add support for this demonising term and its consequences. I am writing this letter to appeal to you to reconsider your view on Israeli apartheid as this term is supported neither by international law nor Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The primary change in Israel since your 2017 article in The New York Times and a similar one from 2015 rejecting apartheid is the current ruling coalition and its proposed policies which many Israelis consider a mortal threat to the nation. A review of your current case for Israeli apartheid appears to be based on a projection of the worst-case outcome for Israel as if every statement, proposed law and plan of the most extreme members of government have become established law. It is this dystopian version of Israel as a police state that you charge with apartheid, not the one that still exists today and which tens of thousands of weekly protestors seek to maintain. You even admit this at the end of your piece when you state that you are addressing the article ‘to Israelis because the rightwing government is taking the country into institutionalized discrimination and racism. This is apartheid.’ Yet in your next sentence you acknowledge that Arabs share national benefits, Jewish and Arab doctors work together and everything is open to Arabs. So which reality should be used to assess Israel? Could you not have waited until the worst-case scenario became a reality before claiming that Israel is an apartheid state?
It is ironic that while you see close parallels between Israel and South Africa – indeed you open by claiming that Israel today is a replay of the ‘horror movie’ that was South Africa in 1948 – the prominent NGOs who brand Israel as apartheid specifically reject the comparison. Why? Because they know that this argument is a losing one since Arab-Israelis enjoy broad freedoms at every level of society, as you admit, with no parallel to the deep segregation that blacks experienced in South Africa. These NGOs instead decisively argue that apartheid is no longer based on the South African model and that apartheid is defined under a new set of criteria that the ‘international community’ has adopted. Omar Shakir, the author of the Human Rights Watch report asserted that comparing Israel to South Africa is a ‘strawman’ argument and not what the NGO is claiming. Which version of apartheid is best to use today – the one where Israel is akin to South Africa or the one where apartheid is detached from the South African experience as the NGOs argue?
You write that ‘caution and thought are needed about comparison’ between Israel and South Africa but it seems you have abandoned your own warning. Perhaps review the 1973 Apartheid Convention and 1998 Rome Statutes that define apartheid. According to these statutes apartheid refers to crimes against humanity that are based on race only as strictly defined – not due to political, national, ethnic, cultural, religious and gender differences as the Rome Statute makes clear. As neither Jews nor Palestinians are a race, the Israel-Palestine conflict cannot be apartheid. There are certainly other crimes against humanity that cover conflicts like this one, but apartheid as defined by international statutes does not apply. NGOs charging Israel with apartheid realised this problem so they modified the meaning of ‘racial’ in the Rome Statute to incorporate national and ethnic identity groups in an egregious falsification of international law. They know the power of the apartheid label to isolate and demonise Israel that merely claiming crimes against humanity (which are also based on gross falsehoods and misrepresentations) does not hold. You understand this, as you once wrote ‘If the accusation is valid, Israel deserves the censure, boycotts and isolation that the B.D.S. movement demands.’
Your opening evidence for Israeli apartheid is that the system that elected today’s Israeli government is reminiscent of the South African system where blacks could not vote while whites who comprised only 20 per cent of the population controlled the outcome. You compare the racist South African system to Likud’s recent victory because with its partners it took 64 seats versus 56 for the opposition, but with only a 0.6 per cent difference in votes. This hardly evidences an illegitimate election, let along apartheid; the U.S. electorate system has put in office five presidents who lost the popular vote, most recently in 2016. Your characterisation of the Israeli system contradicts your 2015 article where you laud Israeli democracy noting that Arabs ‘have the right to vote and Israeli Arab MPs sit in parliament.’ In fact, since your earlier piece an Arab party joined the ruling coalition, for the first time in history, a triumph of Israeli democracy. The leader of the Arab Party that joined the government, Mansour Abbas, specifically rejected the apartheid label. Nothing has changed since then except a newly elected government that is roiling the nation. Again, you describe this apartheid-like Israeli system as if absolute dictatorship has taken hold and abolished free elections, not the one that still exists today.
Your next claim is that Arabs in Israel suffer discrimination but do not evidence how this rises so far beyond racism that exists in every nation into the high crime of apartheid. Your first evidence? That Muslims and Christians are not drafted and thus lose out on benefits. Surely you are aware that Arabs can choose to serve, as many thousands do? Can you imagine the charges of racism if Israel forced Arabs to serve? The next evidence is the fact that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) owns 13 per cent of Israel’s land and restricts its use by Arabs. It seems once again you feign ignorance, as surely you know that the JNF originated as a private organisation that purchased land via donations for Jewish settlement and later coordinated with the state on the settlement of a million Jews from Arab lands and Holocaust survivors using its large private land holdings. It’s not a perfect construct but is reflective of the history of the Jewish state’s formation – not of racism and certainly not of the cruel ‘intentionality’ that you previously claimed ‘underpinned apartheid South Africa.’ It’s curious that these two points headline your thinking that Israel has now tipped into apartheid when nothing has changed regarding these matters since you argued Israel was not apartheid.
In fact, all of your arguments in 2015 on why Israel is not like apartheid South Africa still stand unrefuted:
Under apartheid, every detail of life was subject to discrimination by law. Black South Africans did not have the vote. Skin colour determined where you were born and lived, your job, your school, which bus, train, taxi and ambulance you used, which park bench, lavatory and beach, whom you could marry, and in which cemetery you were buried. Israel is not remotely like that. Everything is open to change in a tangled society in which lots of people have grievances, including Mizrahi Jews (from the Middle East) or Jews of Ethiopian origin. So anyone who equates Israel and apartheid is not telling the truth.
Why are you unwilling to tell this same truth today? Has Israel really changed into the South Africa you remember as a teenager only in the last six years since you argued ‘Why Israel is Nothing Like South Africa’? Are you really watching a ‘replay’ and now Israel is everything like South Africa? You cite the Nation-State Law as the third piece of evidence of Israeli apartheid. It’s fair to argue about the necessity and merits of this law but it hardly evidences apartheid unless you believe that every country that has a similar statute practices the crime of humanity called apartheid. More than 80 countries favour a specific religion; even the United Kingdom enshrines Christianity as the state religion as do several European democracies. This is not merely symbolic like Israel’s Nation-State Law since 26 bishops are entitled to guaranteed membership of the House of Lords – Israel has never reserved specific members of a house of government to Jews only. Many Arab nations, including those surrounding Israel, enshrine Islam as their state religion and codify Arab ethnicity and Sharia law in their constitutions, including the Palestinian Authority. It is reverse discrimination to claim that one Jewish state of 7 million affirming its Jewishness is an expression of the most virulent form of racism while similar laws by dozens of other nations representing more than 1 billion Muslims do not raise even the mildest eyebrow. Humanity should strive for the utopian ideal of no national documents favouring any religion or ethnicity – but somehow Israel is always expected to be the first test case for this universal vision. And if Israel does not do so it is charged with apartheid.
Another tipping point you cite is that ‘Israel can no longer claim security as the reason for our behavior in the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.’ Really? Can anyone claim that since your 2017 article terrorism from Palestinian groups has abated when dozens of Israeli civilians, both Jew and Arab, have been gunned down in cars, restaurants and walking out of synagogues in the past 18 months? Has Hamas stopped firing rockets, calling for the murder of Jews, and building attack tunnels? Has the Palestinian Authority stopped paying salaries to terrorists and their families under ‘pay to slay’ policies that led the US Congress to pass the Taylor Force Act as a response to the inconceivable truth that the PA was compensating the family of the Palestinian man, Bashar Massalha, who knifed to death vacationing American citizen Taylor Force on the streets of Jaffa? His father, Stuart Force was shocked to learn of these payments, arguing that countries who fund the Palestinians ‘turn a blind eye or they just don’t want to deal with it.’ Do not make the same mistake. You didn’t in 2017 when you wrote ’Security concerns have dicated Israel’s precautions and responses, not an ideology of apartheid racism.’ Can you truly assert that Israel’s actions against terrorism have suddently shifted into an expression of of the worst form of racism? The ‘siege’ of Gaza you mention occurred only after Israel withdrew from every inch of Gaza and Hamas took power and began firing rockets – somehow this is also ignored, and nothing new since 2017.
Next, you cite the 56-year occupation claiming it can ‘no longer be explained as temporary’ but you neglect to mention (like everyone else making this charge in what can be called the ‘Great Omission’) that Israeli leaders offered full statehood to Palestinians several times, each offer rejected by both Arafat and Abbas. You also noted in 2017 that while you considered the occupation to be ‘an oppression’ it still did not evidence apartheid. Yes, it’s true that the current government will not be the one making another statehood offer but surely the Palestinians carry heavy blame for their lack of sovereignty. You add that Israel denies ‘Palestinians any hope of freedom or normal lives.’ If Palestinians simply want normal lives how come they have never issued their own proposal for statehood and end of conflict peace? Why does the onus continue to remain on Israel when Palestinians have made clear that a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state has never been their goal? Why is it that after Israel left every inch of Gaza, instead of showing the world they can live in peace next to Israel, Hamas, an internationally recognised terrorist group, continued to seek Israel’s destruction?
While settlements continue to expand, this is also hardly new since 2017. The vast majority of the growth is within the blocks that in a future peace agreement are widely expected to remain as part of Israel. Yes, the current government is seeking to legitimise outposts and expand the settlement footprint, but as proven in 2000 and 2008, settlements were never the reason Palestinians rejected statehood. The offers by Barak and Olmert solved the matter with land swaps and similar mechanisms can be negotiated in the future. It is perfectly reasonable to criticise Israel’s settlement policies and restrictions on land use in Area C of the West Bank (all of which are technically legal under the Oslo Accords to which the Palestinian Authority agreed), but none of these policies evidence apartheid.
The list of South African practices that you compare to Israel also seems to be based on a dystopia that does not exist today. You compare Israel’s proposed judicial reform to a South African law from 1959 that restricted blacks access to universities. In fact, Israel’s universities educate more Arabs than ever, such as the world renowned Technion that is now comprised of 20 per cent Arab students, roughly congruent with the Arab-Israeli proportion of the overall population. You describe how in South Africa movies were censored and books banned and marriage across color lines was prohibited and compare this to the religious dictates of the ultra-Orthodox claiming that their ‘reach is only spreading.’ Surely you are aware that only fellow Jews complain about religious impositions of the ultra-Orthodox while Arab society acts freely and independently in all these areas of life, not subject to any Jewish educational, marriage, religious, language or other rules or restrictions. You describe the Broederbond, the secret Afrikaner organisation that approved every job of significance from army officers to school headteachers – again, there is nothing remotely like this in Israel. Since your earlier articles an Arab was for the first time named chairman of a major Israeli bank and the first Muslim was sworn in as Supreme Court Justice – there are many similar examples that starkly contradict your commentary. Your dystopian version of Israel continues. Indeed, you describe the supposed apartheid government today as one that detains anyone who opposes it like South Africa – ‘Communists were the first target, followed by liberals.’ More that 100,000 weekly protestors holding Israeli flags would disagree.
Your article is a stark contrast to your 2015 and 2017 pieces and employs every technique employed by anti-Israel NGOs: decontextualise Israel from the broader Arab-Israeli conflict; pretend terrorism does not exist and is simply an excuse for Israel to oppress Palestinians because of their identity; pretend Gaza is a peaceful enclave ‘oppressed’ for the same reason – racially based cruelty; cite instances of racism and somehow claim they rise to the level of apartheid; assess Israel in a vacuum with no comparison to any other democracy, what I call the ‘perfection standard,’ and then qualify these imperfections as apartheid; pretend Israel has not tried to end the occupation and grant Palestinians full statehood; gloss over the fact that Arabs in Israel enjoy full democracy and enjoy metrics of health and wealth above minorities in many leading democracies. It’s true that Ben-Gvir and other right-wing politicians have abused their powers and espoused racism. But extremists in government do not evidence apartheid as you acknowledged when you wrote in 2017: ‘Even in Israel, some on the left go along with the apartheid accusation out of despair at being unable to end the occupation or halt the country’s move toward right-wing extremism.’ This ‘despair’ for many Israelis remains, but could you perhaps defer charges of apartheid until the dystopia is a reality?
You add at the end that your article was ‘torn out’ of you and addressed to Israelis because the government is taking the country into ‘institutionalized discrimination and racism.’ However, your address descends into demonisation presenting the nation as the most racist on earth and will help to ‘eliminate Israel’ as you argued was the true goal of those who propogate the apartheid analogy for Israel. It has certainly become more common and acceptable to claim Israel practices apartheid, but the falsehood is the same and the goal is unchanged: to end Israel as a Jewish state. Is this outcome you seek? Is apartheid an honest representation of Israel, akin to the South Africa you grew up in? Are millions of Jews, a large number who share your deep concerns with the direction of the nation, apartheidists? Perhaps your use of the apartheid label was meant as a warning, a jolt to your readers to take action against judicial changes and rising extremism, but your descent into demonisation will be dismissed by the hundreds of thousands of protestors who agree with your fears about the government but are also fierce defenders of the Jewish state with their waving of the Israeli flag.