Students for Justice in Palestine have set up a protest this week on College Walk as part of their annual Israel Apartheid Week. Conversely, Omar Abboud lamented in a CPR column that the word “apartheid” has been universally rejected as a basis for criticizing Israel. While legitimately highlighting how criticism of Israel can be rejected by some circles, Mr. Abboud fails to explore the actual meaning of apartheid and the factual evidence that shows how it does not apply to Israel. Attempts to describe the situation in Israel as “apartheid” adversely oversimplifies and cheapens what is a significantly complicated conflict that demands honest intellectual discourse, not name-calling and rejection.
Mr. Abboud argues that when it comes to trying to label Israel, “the root problem with the word ‘apartheid,’ is that it almost always conjures memories of South African apartheid, and leads to a subconscious comparison of two very different situations.” His first distinction between Israel and South Africa is that Israel’s policies can hardly compare to the complete institutionalization of racism enacted through South Africa’s policies. The second distinction he makes is that Israel’s policies are motivated by security concerns. Yet he concludes the section by saying, “Regardless of the reason, they are segregationist measures and so the question remains: is it reasonable to call [the situation] “apartheid”?
The answer is a resounding no, because a look at the definition of apartheid reveals that the reasons behind the policies in question and complete institutionalization of racism are fundamental aspects of what apartheid is. Both of Mr. Abboud’s distinctions are specifically explicated in both the United Nations’ and the International Criminal Court’s definitions of apartheid. The UN definition, as it appears in General Assembly resolution 3068, otherwise known as the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, says that apartheid constitutes inhumane acts “committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons.” Similarly, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court says in Article 7 Section 2h, “’The crime of apartheid’ means inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Institutionalization of separation by race and the intention of maintaining domination, the two factors that Mr. Abboud said applied to South Africa but certainly not to Israel, are actually central to the general definition of apartheid. As Israel does not fit into these categories, the apartheid analogy is in no way apt.
These definitions highlight the important place that the specific facts of the issue have in a discussion of labeling and definitions. Mr. Abboud addresses two such issues, but he fails to understand or convey their complexity. The checkpoints, which he decries, have in fact proven to be an essential component of Israel’s security system. That Israel removes them as the situation improves is testament to the integrity of Israel’s intentions. The recent addition of Palestinian bus lines was not, as Mr. Abboud claims, intended to satisfy settler demands. It was actually an act of good will to Palestinian travelers, in addition to settlers, to make their commutes easier and also to save Palestinian commuters from having to pay exorbitant prices for “pirate” bus lines. Palestinians are still permitted to ride the Israeli buses. Yes, the idea of separate buses is an eerie one and many Israelis have been quick to criticize them. But, as the UN and ICC point out, the fact that they were instituted with good intentions disqualifies them from being considered apartheid.
This is not to say that Israel’s security policies have not been harsh on the Palestinians. The Palestinians have definitely endured serious hardships. But both these hardships and Israeli policy have come within the context of an enormously nuanced and complicated struggle that Israel Apartheid Week seeks to encourage outsiders to overlook. Israel’s security barrier, for example, has undoubtedly caused serious suffering for many Palestinians physically, psychologically, and economically. However, the barrier has been a security miracle for Israel, certainly playing a large part in the dramatic reduction of terrorist attack deaths starting around 2003, and saving innocent lives. Moussa Abu Marzouq, Deputy Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, admitted in 2007 in a meeting with Egyptian intellectuals in response to a question about the drop in the number of suicide attacks being carried out, that, “[carrying out] such attacks is made difficult by the security fence, and by the gates surrounding West Bank residents.” Similarly, in 2006, Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, leader of the terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for many suicide attacks during the Second Intifada, admitted that “the fence is an obstacle to the resistance; without it the situation would have been entirely different.” The security barrier issue is one of a myriad of issues that IAW critics protest are libelously oversimplified and cheapened by attempts to label Israel as an apartheid state.
The conflict is complex beyond these purely technical issues as well. Both Palestinians and Israelis have legitimate claims to the same land. Certainly the Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own. But certainly, too, is Israel entitled to secure borders. Israel’s fears are not alleviated by the facts that the Palestinian Authority continues to refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that the terrorist organization Hamas continues to enjoy significant public support throughout the Palestinian population. Palestinian fears, conversely, are heightened by Israeli settlement beyond the Green Line and reluctance to negotiate on issues like refugees and Jerusalem.
This year, the slogan feature on SJP Columbia’s flyers was “It’s not complicated – it’s apartheid”. Dishonest attempts like this to squeeze Israel into the label of apartheid seek to turn the conflict into an easy good vs. evil, black-and-white issue. It’s the cheapening of the debate, not criticism of Israel, which IAW critics are upset by. The IAW type of thinking, as Canadian Minister James Kenney said in the statement cited by Mr. Abboud, “censors other points of view, and limits academic discourse.” I believe that IAW critics would be fine with an “Israeli Criticism Week,” as Mr. Abboud proposes, as long as it is based on the recognition that the Israel-Palestine conflict demands discourse, not defamation and oversimplification.