Answering five common objections to Israeli Apartheid Week.
“It is an insult to South Africans.”
To claim that Israel is conducting apartheid policies is not to suggest an exact equivalence with the historic regime in South Africa (there are similarities and differences). Apartheid is a crime under international law; note that it was explicitly prohibited in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of 1998 — several years after the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. As University of Oslo-based academic Carola Lingaas has noted, “had the international community not believed in the continued relevance of the crime of apartheid, it could have chosen not to include it in the [Rome Statute].” However, since you mention the comparison, many South Africans — including leading anti-apartheid campaigners like Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu — have described Israeli policies towards the Palestinians as a form of apartheid. Some believe it to be even worse.
“But Israel is a democracy, and all citizens have equal rights.”
While all Israeli citizens can vote, this is a very superficial understanding of democracy. By defining itself as ‘Jewish and democratic’, “the modern Israeli state belongs only to its Jewish citizens — and even to non-citizen Jews in the diaspora — but not to its Palestinian citizens.” What this means in practice is that Israel institutionally discriminates against non-Jewish citizens (as even the US State Department acknowledges) when it comes to land ownership, housing, family unification, political expression, and much more. In fact, the right to equality is not even enshrined in Israeli law. And while in theory, Palestinian citizens (‘Israeli Arabs’) can become Supreme Court justices or parliamentarians, the reality is somewhat different: in 69 years, there have only ever been three, non-Jewish ministers, and just one Arab justice on the Supreme Court out of 66 (the second is pending). And all of that is before you get on to Israel’s never-ending military occupation…
“The occupation is temporary, and restrictions on Palestinians are regrettable security measures.”
Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (yes, the latter is still occupied) will complete its 50th year this June. Even putting aside how the territory came to be occupied, Israeli policies over more than a dozen different governments have created an inherently discriminatory regime in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) — primarily due to the presence of more than 200 settlements. This colonial enterprise constitutes a grave violation of international law, and is at the heart of a system of segregation, inequality and brutality; settlement homes are built, Palestinian homes are demolished. Israel has subjected Palestinians in the oPt to military rule for 50 of the state’s 69 years, while settlers — more than 600,000 now — enjoy land, natural resources, and privileges denied to the region’s Palestinians. And it’s not just Palestinians who describe this as a form of apartheid — so does Israeli NGO B’Tselem, and international anti-racism experts.
“Events like Israeli Apartheid Week only polarise and cause divisions.”
Contrary to the assumption in this objection, ‘division’ is not necessarily negative: the women’s suffrage struggle ‘polarised’ opinion, anti-racism campaigns create ‘divisions’ (between racists and anti-racists), and so on. Israeli Apartheid Week and the Palestine solidarity movement more generally similarly cause ‘divisions’ — between those who seek to subject Israel to scrutiny and accountability, and those who do not. This objection calls to mind a passage from Martin Luther King’s famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, where he identifies the “great stumbling block” in Black Americans’ “stride toward freedom” as “the white moderate” who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” King added: “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” It is this ‘exposure’ that Palestinians and their allies are seeking through events like Israeli Apartheid Week.
“Israeli Apartheid Week is antisemitic.”
At its core, this objection presumes that Israel is not, in fact, carrying out the aforementioned policies of displacement, colonisation, occupation, discrimination, and apartheid, and therefore that all such claims are motivated by ignorance, or antisemitism. This objection also conflates antisemitism and criticism of the State of Israel, a dangerous — and cynical — approach that has been widely condemned by Jewish individuals and groups who are committed to the combating of, and serious academic study of, antisemitism, but who reject the redefining of the term by Israel apologists. Around the world, Israeli Apartheid Week events are organised by, and feature speakers from, diverse backgrounds — including Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jewish — who have one thing in common: support for Palestinian self-determination and opposition to Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
Want to learn more? ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’ is available in paperback and on Kindle here.