BOOK REVIEW

“DRAWING FIRE — INVESTIGATING THE ACCUSATIONS OF APARTHEID IN ISRAEL”
by BENJAMIN POGRUND (Rowman & Littlefield)

 

This is a most important book. Yet persuading even reputable journals or newspapers to review it is difficult. Today Israel stands accused of being “like apartheid South Africa” and increasingly is subject to Left-inspired boycotts in Europe and the U.S., particularly in the academic community. It is a slippery slope. As Michael Gove told a meeting of the Holocaust Education Trust recently, referring to the 1930s, “What began with a campaign against Jewish goods in the past ended with a campaign against Jewish lives. We need to spell out that this sort of prejudice starts with the Jews but never ends with the Jews. We need to stand united against hate.”

 

 

Benjamin Pogrund is uniquely placed to argue the case that contemporary Israel is in no way, shape or form a clone of apartheid South Africa – the central assertion endlessly pedalled by boycotters. This he does with real conviction, absolute clarity and a barrage of facts and real-life examples that ought to sway anyone with an open mind – if such people still exist. Israel is not white-washed – very far from it. “The ugly reality must not be denied,” he writes with reference to Jewish behaviour, the occupation of the West Bank and the country’s settlement policy. But the comparison with apartheid South Africa, he says, is “primitive propaganda used either out of ignorance or malevolence” with the basic intention of denying Israel’s right to exist.

 

 

Born and brought up in South Africa, Pogrund was the country’s leading, often only, reporter of black affairs in the white-owned media from the 1960s to the 1980s. Jailed and persecuted as an enemy of the state, he persisted with his reporting for 26 years until his paper, the Rand Daily Mail, was closed by its pusillanimous owners under government pressure in 1985. He moved to Britain and worked in Fleet Street until 1997. Then he emigrated to Israel to open the Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem – a facility backed by a liberal synagogue in north London which wished to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, and to tackle discord among Jews caused by differences in practising Judaism.

 

 

In a punchy Foreword to the book Sir Harold Evans remarks that it is “an exercise in cognition and judgement unknown to the grandiose ideologues and unthinking boycotters prominent on the Left in Europe and fringe academics and credulous students whose vehemence in indicting Israel as an apartheid state is matched only by the depths of their ignorance of both societies.” That said, the stupendous and persistent misrepresentation of both the reality of apartheid and the reality of life in Israel today seems to be gaining traction in many countries, not least in post-apartheid South Africa where in August, in the midst of the latest Gaza crisis, a talk Pogrund was due to give about his book to the Institute for Advanced Journalism in Johannesburg was cancelled because emotions were “running so high” over Gaza. One more pinprick triumph for the boycotters.

 

 

Part of Pogrund’s riposte is to name names. All kinds of ill-informed critics of Israel are taken to task on a factual basis – from former US President Jimmy Carter to the UN Human Rights Council (currently dominated by China), the South African judge Richard Goldstone, the iconic totem that is Desmond Tutu, al-Jazeera television, the Guardian newspaper (which often runs pieces from Pogrund) and the South African communist Ronnie Kasrils – described as “a lamentable combination of ignorance and distortion.” Pogrund reserves special scorn for academics, such as the American Virginia Tilley who works for the South African Human Sciences Research Council and “writes incessantly about Israel,” specialising in “distasteful sneers” and “hatchet jobs.”

 

 

Throughout the book Pogrund exposes and undermines one false comparison after another. For example, apartheid South Africa (ASA) needed black labour and black consumers. Israel , at least since the Intifadas, neither needs nor wants Palestinian workers. ASA was the polecat of the world and the ANC had the moral high ground. Israel, by contrast, is respected by many as a democracy and recognised by most other states in the world. ASA was never subject to daily rocket and mortar attacks and suicide bombers whereas violence is integral to the Palestinian approach. In ASA whites and blacks rubbed shoulders all the time – socially, at work and to a degree politically. The result, when apartheid began to unravel in the early 1990s, was that some trust did exist between blacks and whites of stature. In Israel successive wars since 1948 have fuelled the growth of fear and suspicion on both sides. There is little contact and no trust.

 

 

In Chapter Six Pogrund provides a point by point comparison that should be printed as a pamphlet and distributed on all university campuses. Covering 29 categories, it touches on such areas as voting, freedom of speech and movement and association, marriage, social welfare and prisons. He then concludes with a well argued chapter devoted to the Way Forward – in his measured view “two states, Israeli and Palestinian, side by side.”

 

 

Whether any of this will roll back the foul smelling tide of anti-semitism now contaminating much of the world is doubtful. As Pogrund admits: “Anyone who argues in favour of Israel about anything is sneered at as an ‘apologist.” But unless the argument is made, the case for rational behaviour and moderation in policy will go by default. This is a courageous book by a courageous man now in his 80s. He deserves credit for writing it as do the publishers for publishing it. Let us hope that before long it is required reading in universities across Europe and the United States.

 

by ROBIN KNIGHT

[ Robin Knight worked as a foreign correspondent in the Mideast and South Africa and elsewhere for the American newsmagazine US News & World Report for 28 years, for Time magazine as a contributing editor for eight years and for BP as the company’s editorial writer for six years. His memoir ‘A Road Less Travelled’ was published in 2011]