Last week was ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ in South Africa, though only did I discover this on my way to a lecture at Wits on the Monday morning. Covering the Great Hall, the central point of the University, lay a concrete curtain, labelled “Zionism is Racism”. This slogan set the stage for the events that were to take place in the week ahead. So, although I sit here emotionally drained after another week that only impelled more hatred, I want to address a couple of things that stood out for me at IAW this year. Nevertheless, before imparting my opinion, I think it is important to mention that I was not affiliated with either side last week, rather was I present in a personal capacity.
This year, more than any previous year, was it made to clear to me that the Israel Apartheid week does not seek to educate anyone, it does not seek to end Israel’s occupation and neither does it truly intend on liberating the Palestinian people. On the contrary, IAW exists with the sole intention of sparking incitement amongst both groups, creating greater hatred amongst a variety of factions in society, and further dividing both sides of the conflict. IAW does not make people aware of what is really going on in Israel, IAW is a platform for people to gather, delegitimise Zionism and ultimately denounce Israel’s right to exist.
Before pointing out the changes we ought to make to IAW in the future, I want to firstly address the slogan “Zionism is racism” and point out why the false and biased charge of racism is a deliberate effort to undermine the Jewish nationalist movement and ultimately delegitimise the Jewish people’s right to a national homeland. Zionism, formally established as a political organisation in 1897, is the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel — the historical birthplace of the Jewish people. The Zionism that Herzl presents us with is more complex than the what is portrayed by both the Zionist myth and anti-Zionist propaganda- it is an ideology that envisions a Jewish state and is rooted in the liberal principles of freedom, democracy, equality and social justice. By painting the slogan that Zionism is racism and denying the Jews the right to national self-determination, and only to Jews, I struggle to see how this can be called anything other than anti-Semitism. It may be different for the couple of utopians who consistently argue against nationalism in any form, seeking to bring about a world without nation states, but this is not what the slogan painted in front of Wits’ Great Hall seeks. Anti-Zionism isn’t directed at any other national movement but that of the Jews. So, we can acknowledge that most anti-Zionists at Wits wholeheartedly embrace other national movements or at least fail to condemn the existence of any nation state other than Israel. We can also acknowledge that the same people champion Palestinian aspiration. What I struggle to understand though, is how this stark double standard seems to escape them?
So, if BDS-SA and the Wits Palestinian solidarity committee (PSC) aim at seeking a positive change in the future, then they ought to restructure and rebrand their campaign. The way I see it, and call me out if you see it differently — but the BDS campaign does not target Israel’s policies, rather, it targets Israel’s legitimacy!
Their emotionally charged campaign just incites greater hatred- so instead of building common ground to engage in rational discussion, IAW just builds more obstacles. If an entire campaign is premised on hatred and seeks to consistently delegitimise Israel, how will we seek to bring an end to the occupation and ultimately an end to the conflict?
Now, I truly believe that Israel could benefit from a week like this and genuinely needs an international wake up call to realise the negative implications of their presence in the West Bank. However, by setting up a campaign that both demonises Israel and refuses to acknowledge its legitimate right to exist, the BDS-SA and the PSC are retreating from any form of constructive dialogue, that may bring about any genuine change.
Let me conclude by saying that I am not a supporter of Netanyahu’s Likud government, nor am I a supporter of the policies encouraging the continuous expansion of settlements in the West Bank. I also understand the harsh reality that Yom Haatzmaut for Jews is interpreted as Nakba Day for the Palestinians. One man may point out that in ’48, did he finally find refuge in his historical homeland, whereas someone else may point out that because of Israel’s establishment, was he uprooted from his home.
I can’t call out either side and say that neither make a legitimate point, so in saying this, if we choose to realistically and pragmatically move forward from here, then both sides need to make compromises. The BDS ought to acknowledge that the Jewish people also have a historical right to the land that is now Israel. Instead of focusing a campaign on delegitimising Zionism and denouncing Israel’s right to exist, the BDS should rather place emphasis on critiquing and attempting to bring a change to Israel’s current policies. On the other side, us Jews ought to constantly remain critical and be willing to engage. I always say that a Zionist constantly seeks a better Israel, and that is why I encourage every Zionist to constantly challenge his or her beliefs. At the end of the day, none of us can turn back time and neither side can truly prove who the land belongs to. In an ideal world, Palestinians and Israelis would live side by side, on the same land — but this is not the reality we face. Thus, as students, we must remain rational and we must remain pragmatic. I truly believe that student movements can play a major role in the conflict, so as academics, and foremost, as human beings, instead of creating a microcosm of the conflict on our campuses, let’s truly educate others. Let’s firstly acknowledge each other’s cause — neither less worthy, and ultimately find some common ground- something few Israeli and Palestinian politicians have been able to do.