Pogrund Rebuts Apartheid Charge Against Israel

October 19, 2007

1In a provocatively titled lecture, "Is Israel the new apartheid state?" Benjamin Pogrund offered an unequivocal answer: No.

Yet the founding director of Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem, which promotes dialogue among Jews and between Israelis and Palestinians, also criticized Israel for discrimination against the Palestinian population. His talk on October 17 was presented by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, in cooperation with the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.

As a native of South Africa, Pogrund drew the distinction between discrimination against a minority that occurs despite equality in law and discrimination mandated into law.

"Because I grew up with apartheid and know what it means, I'm offended by its misuse," he said.

He noted that Israel has increasingly been accused of apartheid practices, including by his fellow South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But in South Africa, he said, "apartheid determined your life from start to finish," from schooling to marriage and even to where people were buried.

The treatment of the black majority in South Africa before the dismantling of apartheid contrasts with Israel's treatment of its approximately 20 percent Arab minority, he said: "In theory, they have full citizenship rights. In practice, they suffer discrimination."

While lamentable, the discrimination against Arabs is comparable to that suffered by minorities in other countries, including in the recent history of the United States, said Pogrund.

Measures in the West Bank, such as separate roads and a barrier fence, were implemented not for racist reasons, but for security, said Pogrund. In any occupation, "harshness and misdeeds happen," he said.

"Everyone is suffering, the Palestinians as victims and the Israelis as victimizers," he said. "The damage done to both societies, both moral and material, is beyond measure, but it's not apartheid."

He pointed to signs of hope for improved condition, including affirmative action in government service and the appointment of the first Arab to the Supreme Court. Most important, he said, Arabs have the power to change the society through the vote, something denied blacks in apartheid South Africa.

Israel deserves to be criticized for its actions, but those who call it an apartheid state are attempting to delegitimize the country, he said. "Condemning Israel for apartheid is not only wrong," Pogrund said, "it's a distraction."