IQBAL JASSAT poses the question: Has former Rand Daily Mail journalist, Benjamin Pogrund, who many decades ago made Aliya to the settler-colonial regime, Israel, and acted as its propagandist-in-chief, now made a somersault to become a witness for the prosecution?
In a remarkable turnaround from his quarter century of denialism of the existence and practice of apartheid in Israel, Pogrund has now conceded. ‘In Israel I am now witnessing the apartheid with which I grew up…’ he wrote in a recent op-ed published in Haaretz.
In a scathing attack that is likely to provoke anger and frustration among Zionist and pro-Israel lobbyists in South Africa, Pogrund spells out his disgust of the Netanyahu regime:
‘Shabbat observance is coerced. Culture and women’s rights are coming under restrictive control. Bedouin are evicted en masse. Protestors are called traitors’.
Using strong language, he describes the country’s current state: ‘We are at the mercy of fascists and racists (both carefully chosen words) who cannot, and will not, stop’.
In all the years that my colleagues at Media Review Network and I had contested his defence of Israel – in writing and in a TV debate with him on the question of #ApartheidIsrael on SABC – I never imagined, indeed expected, to ever read Pogrund disparaging the Israeli regime as a bunch of ‘fascists and racists’.
In fact Eric Goldstein, the Washington-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the MENA region, confirms in a tweet that Pogrund had ‘fought for years the ‘apartheid’ label as a libel against Israel and an insult to black South Africans’.
In his harsh critique, Pogrund points out: ‘I write about South Africa and Israel because I know both of them, 53 years in one and nearly 26 years in the other. Neither is unique. The same pattern of right-wing repression has happened in our time in Hungary and Poland, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and earlier, in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s’.
He then explains why in his view South Africa’s apartheid regime collapsed: ‘In South Africa, international opposition to apartheid was rejected. The country became the polecat of the world. United Nations condemnations and boycotts and business disinvestment were dismissed. The economy sank. Finally, ruined, it could no longer support apartheid and this was a major reason forcing whites to give up their power and privileges in 1994’.
However, though he falls short of predicting that Israeli apartheid is likely to collapse as in South Africa, he does hint to it, subtly though.
He contends that disastrous effects on the economy are already emerging. And warns that though Israel depends on financial and political aid from the United States and ‘[the US] …defends us against attacks, whether justified or not, in international forums’, the dependency on the US for ‘survival’ is at risk because ‘…we are losing support in Congress’.
Pogrund’s amazing somersault at the ripe old age of 90 may, in all likelihood, be disregarded by many analysts and commentators as ‘too little too late’.
Author and journalist Tony Karon, summed up his views on Pogrund’s ‘conversion’ quite succinctly by dismissing the notion that Israeli apartheid is a recent turn as a ‘liberal Zionist fantasy’.
He tweeted that many Jewish South Africans (including himself) who served in the anti-apartheid liberation movement recognised decades ago that Israel was always a settler-colonial, apartheid system.
Though Pogrund has finally conceded Israel’s apartheid status, the decades he spent to whitewash Zionism is a terrible record for a person who ought to have had the courage to call a spade a spade.
Way back, people of the calibre of the renowned Archbishop Desmond Tutu compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South Africa’s apartheid. His forthright stance and condemnation of Israeli policies towards Palestinians undermined the ridiculous arguments advanced then by Pogrund that to call out Israeli apartheid is an insult to blacks.
In 2014 I had the opportunity to review Pogrund’s book, Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel, in which I questioned his motive for writing it.
The answer was clear. It was to make the case that there is no comparison between apartheid South Africa and what was misleadingly described as ‘civil society discriminations’ against Arabs in Israel. ‘An utterly clumsy effort to present Israel in sunshine terms’, is how I summed it up.
Pogrund’s confession about having joined Ariel Sharon’s Israeli government delegation to the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism held in Durban in 2001 revealed a bias in favour of Israel that I found replete in his book.
His credentials as a journalist took a hammering not only for getting involved as an official of the Israeli regime but for acting as its propagandist-in-chief. His book did not spare critics of Israel, from Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
From a lifelong career in defence of Israeli policies Pogrund, who passionately engaged in Zionist polemics, may have turned the corner but has he gone far enough?
It is left to be seen whether his new-found stance will see him as a credible witness for the prosecution of Israel.
- Iqbal Jassat is an Executive Member of the Johannesburg-based Media Review Network.