I was recently riveted by a disturbing article by the respected journalist Benjamin Pogrund, drawing comparisons between the Israel of today and South Africa during the Apartheid era (Guardian, 19th August, 2023). Pogrund has lived for many years in both societies and is known for his courageous denunciation of the white racists who dominated South Africa for most of the twentieth century.
For a long time he has refused to make simplistic comparisons about similarities between the two countries, which would have been seized on by Israel’s enemies and antisemites everywhere as further justification for their attacks on the Jewish State. Now, however, he has gut-wrenchingly acknowledged that the oppression of blacks by whites during that tragic era in South African history bears an awful similarity to the naked racism of the ruling powers in today’s Israel.
I was brought up with the privileges conferred on me by white South Africa while witnessing the cruelties inflicted on the black community by arrogant whites. I could not face the prospect of living my life burdened by such a conflict. After a brief flirtation with Israel in the sixties, I eventually found a safe haven in Britain. From childhood I had been infused with Zionistic ardour but I found myself lacking in the stamina required to face the rigours of an Israeli society being threatened on all sides by hostile forces.
Although my experiment in ‘aliyah’ did not work out, I remained a Zionist at heart. To this day my emotions are stirred by the history and literature of the Jewish people, the sound of spoken Hebrew and the story of the struggles endured by the early pioneers in their quest for a Jewish State. I have watched with dismay the advance of right-wing Jewish nationalists and their Orthodox religious henchmen, their blatant disrespect for Palestinians under their jurisdiction and the government-sanctioned legislation which deprives people of their basic human rights.
I have heard it all before in South Africa: the sophistry, the legalistic arguments used to justify authoritarian power, the assertions of God-given superiority and, in the last resort, the fear-mongering behind the ruthlessness. In the end, all of this came to nought. Apartheid collapsed and left behind only a legacy of bitterness and deprivation, making the task of restructuring the country an almost impossibly difficult one.
I once saw Israel as a land of hope after the madness and devastation of the Second World War. I still believe that the spirit of compassion burns strongly enough in Israel and in the world Jewish community for us to ride out this crisis and emerge with our democratic values intact, but I can also sense the anguish in Benjamin Pogrund’s dilemma. To speak out is to face the accusation by one’s fellow Jews of giving aid to those calling for the destruction of Israel, but to remain silent is to betray one’s commitment to what is morally right.