Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is upon us again, and while Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (C-SJP) sets up on College Walk, pro-Israeli organizations ranging from Hillel to LionPAC, and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs are launching their responses to begin damage control.
IAW’s detractors are quick to argue that using the term “apartheid” in the context of Israeli occupation diminishes the suffering of South African victims of the Apartheid regime and exaggerates the current situation in Israel and Palestine. Time and again, pro-Palestinian groups, like C-SJP, are told that equating Israeli occupation with apartheid is a sensationalist, divisive tactic that, as Columbia Hillel’s Ariel Brinkman posits, represents a “perverse paradigm of prejudice against the Jewish state.”
In spite of these detractors, C-SJP continues its work to expose Israeli apartheid in solidarity with South African activists and other organizations to speak out against Israeli occupation and its apartheid policies. An exhaustive 2009 study conducted by international law scholars and published by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa identified three pillars of Israeli law and policy that are consistent with the definitions of apartheid and colonialism according to international law. Similarly, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu has written extensively on the parallels between South African apartheid and the racial discrimination and segregation experienced by both Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (Gaza and the West Bank) and within Israel. These are just some examples of South African intellectuals, activists, and organizations that have joined the call for Israel to be held accountable for its discriminatory policies.
The United Nations defines apartheid as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups,” and does not limit its usage to the South African case. In apartheid South Africa, racial groups were demarcated and accorded varying degrees of legal rights, geographically segregated, and restricted from travelling through different areas based on their racial identities. Furthermore, the regime took great care to suppress resistance to its unjust and inhumane policies. Today in Israel, a number of laws and policies give preferential treatment to Jews over non-Jews, fragment the West Bank through illegal appropriation and settlement of land, and limit Palestinians from traveling freely within the West Bank. The Israeli government consistently restricts Palestinian freedom of movement and expression under the guise of security. Apartheid is alive and well in Israel and Palestine.
Beyond arguing over the semantics of Israel’s discriminatory legal apparatus, some of IAW’s critics also sidestep the issue of occupation entirely in order to present Israel as a beacon of democracy in a region marred by corrupt and repressive regimes. The Israeli government and pro-Israeli groups engage in campaigns that attempt to highlight Israel’s diversity by tokenizing minority groups such as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, queers, and Ethiopians. Individuals from these groups often receive monetary compensation to travel to North America to counter claims of apartheid and discrimination. This tactic allows Israel to evade discussion of practices that violate Palestinians’ human rights by hiding behind a disingenuous image of utopian democracy. In spite of this, there remain outspoken Palestinians, queers, Ethiopians, and others who insist that this vision does not represent the daily realities for many minorities in Israel and Palestine.
These campaigns are unproductive, because they allow Israel to remain unaccountable for policies that are clearly discriminatory and in violation of international law. The inability to openly discuss the reality of unjust laws, racial and geographic segregation, and suppression of freedom of expression and movement in Israel/Palestine – all of which are criteria of apartheid – appears to be an implicit admission of apartheid policies. The goal of IAW is not to encourage prejudice against Israel, but to expose and discuss the injustices perpetrated by Israel. Apartheid in Israel is not only an injustice for Palestinians, but it is an injustice for all who live in Israel and Palestine.
Marianna Reis is an MA student at Columbia University. Her research interests include Palestinian identity, diaspora, and cinema. She is currently conducting research on representations of identity in political cartoons featured in Palestinian newspapers during the First and Second Intifadas.