A New York Times op-ed argues that Israel is not the South African apartheid its author sat in jail to expose. But to make his case, Benjamin Pogrund ignores the heart of what occupation really is.
In an impassioned New York Times op ed, Benjamin Pogrund lays down the best possible arguments for why Israel is not an apartheid state. He brings out the full arsenal: his personal experience as a South African. His knowledge as a reporter who investigated and exposed the horrors of the system. He even paid the enormous price of jail time. It’s hard to top that level of credibility in dispelling the apartheid claim.
So why don’t his arguments work?
It starts with the author’s purpose. His actual aim is not a dispassionate comparison of apartheid with occupation, but to kick the legs out from under the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) argument. BDS, he writes, rests on the notion that Israel is like the South African apartheid regime, and boycott toppled the latter; break the equivalency and there can be no more BDS. This is what propelled his inquiry, and it taints the entire prospect.
In order to achieve his actual goal, Pogrund cannot just juxtapose the systems and assess them: he must always justify why boycott was right for South Africa but wrong for Israel. In other words, he has his conclusion in advance. If BDS claims that occupation is “worse than apartheid,” his overriding theme is “It’s not as bad.”
This leads him to provide a bizarre partial list of things going wrong in Israel and the West Bank, as if to pre-empt the criticism. But the disturbing silent refrain whispers behind each one. Military regime governing Palestinian life: it’s not as bad as apartheid. Home demolitions, the wall: It’s not as bad — as if relativity is all that matters; as if the awfulness of life under a permanent military regime can be quantified; as if other South Africans who lived under apartheid — black people, including Desmond Tutu — hadn’t pointed to just as many parallels; and as if the absolute fact of a 50-year occupation is not enough to demand that it end.
Pogrund’s “not as bad” theme glides into the next one: “it’s their fault,” even deftly connecting the two concepts. In his telling, Palestinians started the suicide bombings, which led to settlement growth, which led to a second intifada, which led to the security wall. Which is really mostly a fence, “except in populated areas.” He allows that there is an unfortunate land grab element. But it’s not as bad as apartheid.
In reality, in the locations where it counts, the wall is in fact made up of eight-meter high concrete slabs, like upright, oversized graves. It snakes through the Jerusalem hills along a wildly irregular route, slammed down the middle of streets, ruining neighborhoods and livelihoods for whole communities — tens of thousands of people, if not more. From a distance it is a shocking sight, ripping the landscape into two.
I recently met a bright young tech-savvy Palestinian kid. If he were Jewish, he could have been the poster child for “Start Up Israel.” Instead, he waits in a mob at checkpoints “like animals,” mocked by soldiers, getting outraged. Can be there be any clearer formula for disaster? Does he know whether it’s better or worse than apartheid?
Yet the author manages to claim that the fence (as he puts it) “has nothing to do with apartheid-style racial segregation.”
But worse than the conclusion-tailored comparisons is what the author simply leaves out. The absence in his article of the most widespread mechanism of occupation indicates a disqualifying lack of knowledge. It is unclear why Pogrund, who sacrificed his own freedoms to expose the system in South Africa, has not accounted for this fundamental feature of Israel’s military regime.
A hundred and one different permits govern the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, according to Dr. Yael Berda, a Harvard and Hebrew University scholar speaking on the Tel Aviv Review podcast, which I co-host. Permits are wielded collectively, racially and demographically. There are no permits governing movement for Jews.
These documents determine whether a Palestinian can travel from the West Bank to Jerusalem, from the West Bank to Jordan or to Gaza (permission mostly granted), or from Gaza to the West Bank (hardly ever granted). The permits are bestowed and revoked arbitrarily, designed to confuse subjects rather than address individual security risks.
No reason beyond “security” is ever given when a permit is denied. Berda told Haaretz that “The permit regime is the world’s largest and most developed mechanism for filtering, identifying and restricting the movement of a large civilian population.” Does that make it better or worse than apartheid? Pogrund doesn’t ask – because he doesn’t mention the permits and their impact.
He leaves out how the West Bank is chopped up like townships, into Areas A, B and C, and that the West Bank is almost entirely cut off from Gaza. In fact, the word Gaza, along with its 1.8 million people, doesn’t appear once in his piece.
Finally, as if unconvinced himself that apartheid and occupation are sufficiently different, Pogrund determines that their intentions differ: Israel, in his opinion, does not intend to build a racial system. Yet this is not how Israel sees it. The country openly and proudly insists on its identity as a Jewish state, with systems in place to privilege Jews above others. I would agree that Israel is not actually an apartheid regime inside the Green Line. But the desire for ethno-national separatism is precisely what drives the policies of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as inequality within.
This reality doesn’t make it into Pogrund’s analysis. It is confounding and frustrating to find someone with a demonstrated commitment to facts and justice attempting to persuade New York Times readers that boycott is bad, by shearing off half the story of what occupation actually is.
The tragic reality is it doesn’t actually matter if Israel is a carbon copy of apartheid’s policies or not. It doesn’t matter whether the mentality is rooted in obsolete racial ideologies, or in the desire to decimate Palestinian statehood. The result is a systemic separation of Arabs from Jews, by education, by opportunity, by land, roads and water and, in the West Bank, by law.
The lived experience of the people in this land show the results: 74 percent of settlers, some five percent of the whole population in the region, say life conditions are good. Just 23 percent of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians — about one-third of the total population — say the same.
As an Israeli, I ask the author: Is this the discussion we want to be having? Should we be splitting hairs and tallying scores to decide whether Israel is practicing apartheid or not? Occupation is bad enough. Let’s end it.