My apartheid spiel
How you talk about Israel (or as others would say, Palestine) depends on where you come from, where you have been, who you know and what you have been exposed to. We are products of our pasts.
At Cornell University’s debate tournament two weekends ago, I had to open a debate on the topic “This House supports the use of the word ‘Apartheid’ to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.” As a Jew who studied abroad in Jerusalem last semester, I found debating against my own personal opinions to be a healthy exercise. At debate tournaments, I am often faced with motions with which I disagree, but with only 15 minutes of preparation time, I had to throw myself into the arguments.
The debate ended up being about the ramifications of the word “Apartheid,” beyond the intentions of those who use it.
To backtrack, when I returned to Duke this past January, I thought I had escaped Israel’s clutches. In Israel, I had what’s called “Jerusalem syndrome,” characterized by symptoms including dizziness, confusion, anxiety and intense yearning. With Jerusalem syndrome, every day is new, every experience exceptional—the whole land is saturated with historical and cultural significance. It didn’t matter where I was. I could be exploring the Old City, eating in East Jerusalem, celebrating the “Festival of Festivals” in Haifa or hanging out on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. I felt a deep sense of magic, everywhere.
People feel a deep connection to the land and that’s why discussions about the direction of the country and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are characterized by so much passion. There’s deep-seeded resentment on all sides, stemming from past injustices and current attachments. It’s not just about territory, but also demographics, the economy, religion and politics. Every sphere is intrinsically linked.
Next week, Duke Students for Justice in Palestine (DSJP) will be holding their “Israeli Apartheid Week.” They received $1,940 from DSG for the week, which will feature a visit by Bekah Wolf, co-founder of the Palestine Solidarity Project. I spoke with sophomore Ahmed Alshareef, president of DSJP, who explained that the group’s goal is to “explore the concept of Israel as an Apartheid system.” He added a sub-goal: to “slowly introduce the political and humanitarian sides of the conflict.”
I found the exploration part confusing: The group is using the word “Apartheid,” having already assumed that racial segregation is the reality on the ground. Regardless of one’s conception of that reality, I think it’s important to assess how using the word achieves or detracts from the group’s goals. Alshareef admitted, “Calling it [Apartheid] would honestly bring more attention to the week.”
If the week were called “Palestinian Solidarity Week” or “Defeat Netanyahu’s Government Week,” then maybe I would have dropped by a couple of events. I maintain that loving Israel doesn’t mean I have to approve of every policy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. But I don’t condone the South Africa comparison.
Words are powerful when they are applied to singular circumstances. Apartheid is not an adjective but a noun. It describes a systematic use of racial oppression and segregation by the white minority over the black majority in South Africa. Even if you see similarities in Israel, it’s important to take into account context and timing.
Alshareef said in our interview that the goal of DSJP is “justice in Palestine, whether that’s social, political, humanitarian, whether that’s one state or two states, it’s not specific.” By using the word Apartheid, however, they alienate large constituencies.
Let me tell you why. Apartheid implies racial segregation. But that’s not what I saw consistently in Israel. The West Bank and Gaza are a totally different story, which I would need a whole other column to address. But within the borders of pre-1967 Israel, I had Palestinian students in my Hebrew language-intensive classes and frequently saw them around The Hebrew University, where I studied. I bought food from Palestinian vendors at the market and learned about Palestinian political parties. Palestinians living in Israel can vote, and do. Every day on my way to school, I walked past the Hadassah Medical Center, which I saw Palestinians frequently enter.
What I am trying to convey is that there’s much more integration in Israel than “Apartheid” implies. Its use both devalues what happened in South Africa and mischaracterizes what the real problems in Israel actually are.
The REAL problem in Israel isn’t whether Israelis want justice for Palestinians. Rather, it is the fractures and fault-lines within each coalition. As Alshareef and I both agree, “extremists” are on both sides. Whether it’s Hamas, which refuses to recognize the State of Israel and has sent suicide terrorists and missiles into Israel, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, who alter the balance of power between the Left and Right, it is the internal divisions that cause potential compromises to collapse and reconciliation to falter.
I, too, want acceptance and opportunity for the Palestinians in Israel, the territories and other Arab states. But I’m not going to join your coalition if you alienate me with your terminology, which represents much more than a gambit for attention. The conflict’s most pressing, complex problems will never be resolved if we can’t come to terms with each other’s language.
Samantha Lachman is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Thursday. You can follow her on Twitter at @SamLachman.