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Apartheid Week: Really?

As the spring season rolled into town, making flowers bloom and people come out of their winter hibernation, another event also came into town, namely the controversial Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Named after the infamous apartheid system seen in South Africa throughout the 1970s and 1980s, IAW has garnered much controversy in its 7-year life span for criticising Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories and equating the Israeli system to one of  racial segregation.  IAW originally began in Toronto in 2005 but has since spread to 55 other cities on 3 different continents. The annual week often displays a variety of documentaries depicting the alleged brutalities of the Israeli Defense Forces actions in Gaza and the West Bank, and also presents numerous speakers and experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in hopes of educating the public of Israeli crimes. The goals of IAW events are to show the true nature of Israel as an “apartheid” state, and to garner support for the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign (BDS), a campaign targeting Israeli-owned businesses, cultural venues and academics in hopes of changing policies in the Palestinian territories.

Before addressing the numerous problems associated with the goals and tactics of IAW, it must be said that the notion that Israel is an “apartheid” state comparable to South Africa has garnered the most controversy. In accordance with the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (ICSPCA) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1973, the definition of apartheid refers to “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining dominance by one racial group of persons over another racial group of persons…” which in this case applies to murder, infliction of bodily harm, arbitrary arrests  and legislated segregation or social and political discrimination. With that in mind, the comparison of Israel to an apartheid state would have to follow this particular formula for it to be legally declared.

In many respects, comparing the Israeli policies to an apartheid system has little merit and breaks with actual realities on the ground. This comparison also demands that the definition of apartheid be loosened so greatly as to fit a new definition. Amongst some of the criticism used to fit the “apartheid” analogy includes the West Bank barrier and Jewish-only settlements. Often regarded as the most ample evidence of apartheid, the West Bank barrier erected in the early 2000s is one of the main sources of criticism amongst IAW activists. Unbeknownst to activists claiming forced segregation, however, the State of Israel has seen a reduction in the amount of terrorism committed through cross-borders attacks in response to this policy, with 142 deaths in 2003 reduced to 3 deaths in 2007, despite the onslaught on the Second Intifada in 2000. Interestingly, the legitimate security concerns of the State of Israel are often downplayed by IAW as disproportionate or inherently discriminatory, notwithstanding existing U.N declarations of sovereign rights and the appropriate use of force in defending citizens. Although civilian deaths as a consequence of war is a tragedy in all respects, the classification of “civllians” in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult to define when Gaza residents allow (sometimes without choice) rockets to be fired from residential homes. Is the death of a collaborator still classified as collateral damage?

In another respect, the settlements also garner the perception from IAW as employing the “apartheid” policies of Israel through territorial discrimination. Although at face value this may support the legal definition, the issue of sovereignty has been a problem since the Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories in 2004. The withdrawal was due to conflicts over territorial claims, after the dismantling of certain settlements deemed to be on Palestinian Authority territory. In other words, issues over what constitutes Israeli or Palestinian territory has been skewed as a circumstance of the 1948, 1967 and 1973 war, which drastically changed the territorial makeup of the region. Although I will not deny the necessity of removing the settlement in helping to facilitate the peace process, the example provided shows the difficulties of actually having clear territorial divisions, with IAW activists making judgement calls on based on photos  of checkpoints, deeming them as permanent instillations, instead of temporary security measures. Another issue often ignored by IAW is the reality that Arab citizens of Israel actually possess full and equal rights in all realms of living in Israeli society, something not seen in South Africa or throughout numerous Arab states with regards to minorities or women.

Apart from trying to refute the apartheid analogy, which can be endless and tiresome, the strategies used by IAW in delegitimizing Israel bring out the true absurdities of this event. Instead of providing an open forum discussion, apparent human rights activists, simply employ the “apartheid” analogy and create a toxic environment for students wishing to have an objective view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than focusing on the blatant human rights abuses happening throughout most of the Middle East, as seen in Syria and Iran, IAW focuses on a state with a better record in comparison to its neighbours. At the same time, IAW ignores the legacy of the Jewish exodus. This double standard is exemplified with the reluctance of IAW activists in condemning the launch of Palestinian rockets aimed at civilians in southern Israel, making one question whether these activists are actually devoted to ALL human rights, or simply Palestinian rights. With IAW supporting and promoting the BDS campaign, they are committing hypocrisy against their own values as human rights activists, since they are not boycotting other states with supposedly horrendous human rights records. In retrospect, IAW and its promotion of the BDS campaign conjures up questions of what exactly their motives are, with harsh critics of Israeli policies like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein attributing the group to a “cult” aimed at destroying Israel through de-legitimization by public perception instead of rockets or bombs. In trying to be bold by using such a controversial title like “apartheid,” IAW and the BDS movement has actually inhibited open dialogue, making this spring week simply a waste of time. If they want to be more effective in achieving their goal, changing their name and fostering an open environment is definitely a start.


–  Cody Levine



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