Book Review: Confronting Israel’s apartheid accusers

A journalist who witnessed segregation in South Africa seeks to show Israel has little in common with the country he grew up in.

Jewish and Arab customers at a Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jewish and Arab customers at a Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem.
Benjamin Pogrund vividly recalls the time he went to Hadassah University Medical Center, on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, to be treated for stomach cancer.
“During the four-and-a-half weeks as a patient, I watched Arab and Jewish patients get the same treatment... Israel is like apartheid South Africa? Ridiculous.”
It is one of the more memorable personal anecdotes in an otherwise dry, convoluted and mildly persuasive book, Drawing Fire, subtitled “Investigating the accusations of apartheid in Israel.”
Pogrund sets out by briefly sketching his own role as a dissident journalist in South Africa in the ’60s to the ’80s. “I have to struggle to relate the image of the pure and beautiful Zionism with which I grew up to the reality of Jewish behavior, which at times is inhumane and beyond toleration.”
Nevertheless, the author remains positive on the country. “Israel’s accomplishments are wondrous; but it is not a perfect society and its people sometimes behave badly... none of this has lessened my belief in Zionism or the imperative of Israel as a home and sanctuary for Jews.”
The real question that immediately confronts the reader is why would an author who manifestly does not accept the view that Israel is an apartheid state devote a whole book to it. From the outset it is clear he was scared by the United Nations World Conference Against Racism held in Durban in 2001. If you want to investigate something, one would imagine that you would begin by detailing the accusations.
But Pogrund takes the reader instead into a history of Judaism and Zionism.
Then he moves on to a boilerplate explanation of Israel’s War of Independence with some discussion of expulsions of large numbers of Arabs from the nascent Jewish state. It is obvious in this telling that the author is trying to burnish his left-wing credentials while rejecting the apartheid libel. But right from the start it is clear that this book does not fully dismantle the myth of Israeli apartheid; rather it confuses the issue and provides weak arguments in place of stronger ones.
Anticipating the apartheid claims, he tries to show how Israel’s society is complex.
The book details the various laws that one might view as discriminatory, such as the Law of Return, concluding that many of the restrictions are comparable in other states. He looks at the army as a divider between Jews and Arabs in society and asserts that “conscription be widened so that it applies to everyone: That would be a massive contribution to reducing divisions and binding Israelis.”
Pogrund looks at other instances of groups complaining of discrimination.
Acceptance committees are “not uniquely Israeli but like the ‘gated communities’ common in other countries,” and Ethiopian Jews who complain of discrimination merely “suffer the same problems of immigrant families anywhere in the world.” The author plods through health statistics to show that the Jewish state has done wonders for its Arab minority by decreasing infant mortality rates and illiteracy.
The book takes a harsher tone regarding the West Bank, where he describes Jewish communities as “all illegal in international law” and Ariel as “a dagger pointing into the heart of the West Bank.” He castigates aspects of Israeli control of the West Bank, such as the building of Route 443.
Having shown Israel’s involvement with the West Bank, he gives a short laundry list of the discriminatory policies enacted after the rise to power of the Afrikaner National Party in 1948. A Population Registry Act forced people to be “put into a racial pigeonhole” and a Group Areas Act “divided the entire country into different areas for residence and business by different color groups.” Suddenly “whites only” billboards were thrown up, with segregated buses and dining cars. The reader is left confused and disoriented by the march of progress through this book.
By the time one gets to Chapter Six the author has decided to provided a handy list of “are they [apartheid and Israel] the same” with the notation “inside the Green Line.”
It would have been helpful here to understand what the apartheid allegation against Israel entails and how it has been defined over time; but instead he leaves that for the last third of the book. Pogrund doesn’t care to detail any of these critiques until after he has debunked them, so he sets out to show that while in South Africa blacks could not serve in parliament, in Israel Arabs serve in the Knesset.
Both groups vote, inside the Green Line.
The author doesn’t consider that the “apartheid” label is applied to Israel by activists as a catchy label, rather than as a direct comparison.
The ham-handed analysis gets worse when the author tries to explain how South Africa and Israel are different.
Looking at “violence” he claims “South Africa’s whites maintained their control over the black majority through violence....
Jews maintain control through violence.” Apartheid? Pogrund prefers instead to argue that black resistance against apartheid was purer than Palestinian terrorism.
“There were no suicide bombings, no assassinations, no drive-by shootings, no roadside firing at cars and no knifings [in South Africa].”
Unfortunately he is simply incorrect in romanticizing the African National Congress. Numerous bombings occurred in South Africa, including the Durban beach bombing in 1986 in which civilians were killed. The author seeks to wish away the thousands of murders in so called “necklace killings” in South Africa in the lead up to the 1994 elections. Pogrund prefers to turn the resistance to apartheid into some sort of Gandhiesque story. Why, is not clear.
Does he think that ascribing Palestinian-style violence to the ANC would connect Israel to South Africa? It is obvious that explaining Israel’s security needs in the face of terrorism is key to this book’s analysis. “The security barrier/ fence/wall and checkpoints created because of the [Palestinian] violence exceeds anything under apartheid. The barrier is immoral, exploitative and damaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.”
But, he argues, other countries have barriers, such as those constructed in Northern Ireland.
“The occupation is nothing like the meticulously organized and institutionalized racism of apartheid South Africa,” the book claims. Furthermore “it is also not correct... that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank is racism.
How can it be? The Palestinians are family of the Palestinians who live in Israel and who are Israeli citizens.”
Can Palestinians in Israel move out and live in the West Bank and built a community, say, near Efrat, the same way Jews do? Why do Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who leave Jerusalem and live in Ramallah lose their residency but a Jewish resident who moves to the US doesn’t? Touchy aspects like this the author doesn’t want to look at too closely.
Pogrund concludes that only at such a time “if settlement expansion continues, if no Palestinian state comes into being, if Israel annexes the West Bank, if Israel denies rights to Palestinians and if it enforces rigid separation and discrimination, then it will be time to talk about apartheid.”
That is a lot of ifs. Had this book been organized better, it might make more of an impact. As is, it is a convoluted and confusing discussion, packed with information on an important topic.