Opinion, World — March 7, 2013 at 6:00 pm

The A-Word

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omar israel palestine pic

This week, for the first time, Israel introduced Palestinian-only bus lines for its commuters from the West Bank that use public transportation. This measure, one of classic ethnic segregation, was drafted after settlers claimed that Palestinians posed a security threat on public bus routes.

The bus lines are likely to be a big topic of showcase starting next Monday, when “Israeli Apartheid Week” begins in New York City. The use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israel and its domestic policies as well as those in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza isn’t anything new, but to call it controversial or even taboo today would be an understatement.

The root problem with the word “apartheid,” in my opinion, is that it almost always conjures memories of South African apartheid, and leads to a subconscious comparison of two very different situations. Anybody who compares Israel to South Africa can find significant differences in how they treated their respective minorities, and can lead to an automatic rejection of the use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israel.

Apartheid, in the South African case, was a fully institutionalized segregation by which all public services, from healthcare to transportation, were separated by race. In Israel, many of the heavily disputed accusations of apartheid are carried out in the Occupied West Bank, a land in which the Israel Defense Forces has discretion to commit certain acts under the legal radar, particularly at checkpoints.

The other complication that arises when looking at the Israeli case is of course the issue of security; unlike South African minorities who were segregated as a racially inferior people, much of Israel’s presumed marginalization of Palestinians (like in the bus example) arise, according to Israel and its supporters, due to security. The settlements and their expansion into the West Bank, the existence of checkpoints, and the segregated roads and now buses serve as examples of where the issue of security is often given as a justification. But regardless of the reason, they are segregationist measures and so the question remains: is it reasonable to call it “apartheid?”

My first instinct, in this context, would be to find a definition of apartheid and create my own judgment from historical facts. It’s ironic that on my Apple computer, the Dashboard Dictionary brings up the first definition as “(in South Africa) a policy of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.” I guess even for computers the word apartheid rings historical accounts.

It’s not a surprise that our governments in the Western world, then, generally frown upon the use of “apartheid” to describe Israel. Just this week, the Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, called Israeli Apartheid Week “a misleading attempt to delegitimize and demonize the only true liberal democracy in the Middle-East.” He called the activities performed during that week “vitriol[ic]” and “toxic.”

And this, in my opinion, is where critics of IAW lose me: are we actually condemning the events and the people that organize IAW, or do we just viscerally disapprove of the word “apartheid” to describe Israel? If the issues of mass incarceration, settlements, and segregated bus lines were discussed and protested next week (and indeed they will be) under the banner of a week called “Israeli Criticism Week” or “Israeli Censure Week,” would these reactions be any less vitriolic themselves?

Using a definition and making a personal analysis seems simple enough, but I’m fully convinced that the Canadian government, and many other critics of IAW I suspect, have not done this. Although the first paragraph of his statement published on March 4 addressed the week in general and its “reckless” activities, the rest of Kenney’s exposé was about criticizing Israel in general and manipulating the meaning of academic freedom, rather than using targeted examples and factual grounds to denounce the week.

So who’s at fault? Is society wrong for interpreting the word “apartheid” as inflammatory, or are IAW organizers (regardless of how correct the word might be in this context) just turning away more heads from their cause?

There is, subsequently, an underlying problem with the dictionary model as well; critics of Israel in all shapes and sizes oftentimes find themselves labeled as anti-Semites or subjected to severe social censures. This suggests that a criticism of Israel, whether under the banner of apartheid or any other word, will be inherently intolerant or hateful. I say this from experience as a Columbia student and columnist for the Columbia Political Review, but I can draw yet another example from Minister Kenney’s statement: after his extended reprimand, he ended the statement with the sentence “I encourage Canadians to speak out against all forms of discrimination, intolerance and anti-Semitism.” I interpret this as a direct, if not only implied, suggestion that IAW is inherently anti-Semitic. The problems with this are numerous, the least of which being the contradiction that many Jews participate in Israeli Apartheid Week in several capacities.

It concerns me that discourse over Israeli Apartheid Week isn’t often, in summary, based on apartheid as it should be. Our lawmakers and peers have influence, and a more-or-less confused condemnation of IAW like the one made this week by my government, the Canadian government, does little to improve the conversation we should be having. Maybe the government would do well to pick up a dictionary, but maybe the masterminds behind IAW would also do better to pass on the A-word to provide an easier route to the dialogue we desperately need. To a Palestinian, though, it’s just another day on a segregated bus between Israel and its occupied neighbour.

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  1. I won’t pretend to be an expert on South Africa (I’m slightly more knowledgeable on the Israel-Palestine situation), but it seems inaccurate to me to say that in the former case institutions were “separated by race,” whereas in the latter case these separations are solely functions of “security” or other practical needs. White South Africans didn’t exclude black South Africans from public services just to feel good about themselves for being white. Apartheid was a system of political and economic domination of the native population by a minority of settlers of European descent. Obviously if we’re going to compare Israel to South Africa, a comparison that is intellectually valid as any, we’re going to come across differences, but I don’t think to call one “racial” and not the other is a useful distinction.

  2. Thanks for reading the article. I think before addressing your specific concern, it’s worth mentioning that the discrepancies between South African apartheid and the presumed Israeli “apartheid” were not the focal point of the article, and acknowledging that discrepancies exist is logically sufficient for my point to stand.

    I didn’t suggest that security threats were the only justifications provided for Israeli “apartheid,” nor did I imply that any segregation was appropriate under that pretence. Many could argue, in fact, that Israelis are economically and politically dominating the Palestinians as settlers of European descent – indeed, 30% of Israel’s population even in contemporary times is “olim,” or born outside the country (with 20% from Europe). In any case, security and more significantly military discretion are, on a basis level, notable differences. What I’m trying to argue is that despite this, people tend to use South Africa as a precedent rather than frame the conflict in some sort of arbitrary terms.

  3. Hi Omar-

    First off, great article. In the above comment, you argue for the significance, or lack thereof for the term ‘apartheid’. I respect (and happen to agree with) your views on the conflict, however here I believe that you are wrong. As you pointed out yourself, the Israeli and South African apartheid are incompatible situations, the latter with significant emotional resonance. They’re entirely different scenarios, and I think that the way in which you frame today’s conflict is significant.

    I agree that the crux of your article, but the defense of the term ‘apartheid’ is mostly illegitimate- those of us who are serious about a solution to the IAW issues need to focus on pragmatic conversation instead of playing semantics with history. The language is inflammatory, and it cheapens the Palestinian perspective in this debate- unfortunately putting me in the uncomfortable and bizarre position of agreeing with Jason Kenney.

    Of course, legitimate debate over Israel’s abusive ‘security’ practices is not anti-semitic. It’s unfortunate that many choose to cop-out of actual conversation by whipping out the racism card. But I think it takes somebody to be the bigger man and reel back their own rhetorical (or inappropriate) exemplars. Language is important, as is tact.

  4. Thanks for your comment. You bring up some good points, which are definitely the more reasonable bases for a critique of Israel Apartheid Week. I do raise the question of whether society is partially at fault for misinterpreting the word “apartheid,” and I think you could argue in favour of that on the basis that “apartheid” has some objective definitions. As was recently brought to my attention, the ICC does define a legal term for apartheid, but due to historical precedent (and as you pointed out, some sort of emotional precedent as well), people set South Africa as the “standard” for defining apartheid.

    I see how this is problematic and inflammatory from your perspective, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with Kenney and call IAW or its organizers vitriolic or toxic. By doing so, he is worsening the dialogue (or lack thereof), and reaffirming the somewhat pervasive notion that opposition to Israel is anti-semitic in nature, something we both recognize as untrue. You could additionally argue that IAW organizers hurt nobody but themselves by using that word, just because of how emotionally charged the word “apartheid” is– but having said this, the burden doesn’t always or entirely fall on their shoulders.

    These days, I think it’s reasonable to claim that Palestinians in general (especially those abroad who organize IAW) want to describe policies of Israel, especially in recent years, as provocatively (and in their opinion, as accurately) as possible.

    Thanks again for reading & commenting.

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