Two reports on Israeli Apartheid Week

Sign from a demonstration to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, May 2008, in RamallahSign from a demonstration to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, May 2008, in Ramallah

Here are two recent reports of mine about Israeli Apartheid Week:

Audio: Free Speech Radio News
Palestinian human rights advocates push event forward

The Link: Make 'Believe'
Hillel is distracting from the real issue: Israeli apartheid

by Aaron Lakoff

Hillel has launched a campaign across campuses in Montreal called “BeLIEve,” most likely with the hopes of trying to salvage world opinion of Israel following the recent war in Gaza.

The campaign consists of a series of postcards with different “lies” and “facts” about Israel and I had a chance to pick up these postcards from a Hillel table on the mezzanine at Concordia the other day.

One of the “BeLIEve” postcards that struck me in particular had the headline, “Lie: Israel is an apartheid state.” I am glad that Hillel is distributing these postcards, and in that sense, finally engaging in a public debate around Israeli apartheid.

Hillel’s postcard contends, “the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be explained by slogans.” I completely agree. However, a deeper look into the policies and laws of Israel will reveal that apartheid—a term used to describe the situation in Israel by South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter—is not merely a slogan, but rather an apt paradigm to apply to the situation.

Hillel’s first “fact” is that “Israel extends equal rights to all its citizens.” This statement is, unfortunately, categorically false. If apartheid is a legalized and institutionalized system of discrimination and segregation based on race or ethnicity, then Israel, like South Africa, fits the bill.

While Palestinian/Arab citizens of Israel are allowed to vote in national elections, there are no less than 20 Israeli laws that discriminate against non-Jewish citizens. These laws govern—among other aspects of Palestinian daily life—the prohibition of Palestinians living in Israel from living with their spouses who come from the Occupied Territories, the prevention of non-Jewish land ownership on 93 per cent of Israel’s territory and the denial of the right of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 to return to their homes and properties.

Hillel’s postcard decries the comparison to South Africa, stating, “unlike South Africa, Israel’s actions are based on security rather than race.” This bizarre point raises serious questions about Hillel’s position on the issue.

First, the justifications of security that Israel invokes to defend its military policies have no intellectual or political ground to stand on. Years of research and human rights work have unmasked and invalidated these justifications as a rationale for Israeli actions against Palestinians. This has been evidenced from the country’s security wall which annexes some of the most valuable lands in the West Bank, to the series of checkpoints in the Occupied Territories which severely restrict Palestinian freedom of movement, to its unilateral disengagement from Gaza in order to fortify its illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Secondly, Hillel tacitly admits that Israel employs policies that could be defined as apartheid by arguing that it is the justifications for its policies, rather than the policies themselves, that are incongruous with the label “apartheid.” In this case, it’s apartheid in application, not intention that we should be concerned with. Even some of the main architects of apartheid in South Africa invoked justifications of security, going so far as to describe apartheid as “a policy of good neighbourliness.”

Finally, Hillel claims that the apartheid paradigm can more aptly be applied to the situation of women in Saudi Arabia or the treatment of Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Certainly the oppressive policies in other Arab dictatorships are indefensible. However, making these comparisons to other countries doesn’t get Israel off the hook.

People in Canada should be concerned with Israeli apartheid because our own government has a cozy relationship with theirs, and hence we all share some degree of responsibility and investment in such a brutal regime. If we are going to make comparisons, then we need look no further than Canada and the apartheid-like conditions facing indigenous people in our country.

The lack of clean drinking water on reserves, the consistent denial of land rights, denial of basic human dignity looks a lot like many of the unrecognized Palestinian villages in the Negev desert or northern Israel.

From March 1st to 9th Israeli Apartheid Week will be taking place at Concordia, as well as dozens of other campuses around the world. During that week, students will be able to make up their own minds about Israeli apartheid. Until then, Hillel’s campaign doesn’t offer us any clarity, or for that matter, any real truths around Israel and apartheid.

We can make “believe”, but it won’t make Israel any less of an apartheid state.