Next week, Duke Students for Justice in Palestine (of which I am president) will be hosting Israeli Apartheid Week, to which the entire Duke community is invited. The week is an internationally coordinated series of events geared toward educating people about Israel as an apartheid system and to organize boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaigns as part of a global movement.
The 2002 Rome Statute defines the crime of apartheid as inhumane acts “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” The goal of the week is to show that Israel—whether it’s through home demolitions, road infrastructure, the separation wall, the Law of Return, indefinite detentions or access to land ownership—is guilty of the crime of apartheid.
To say Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid is not to deny the Jewish people their safety and security, but to hold a state accountable for its oppression. The Israeli regime maintains its effective control and systematic oppression throughout the entire region. Within the Occupied Territories, Palestinians live as a stateless people under military law with severely restricted movement while Israeli settlers enjoy full citizenship and much higher standards of living. With continued settlement development and an entire infrastructure built for those settlers, it’s difficult to continue to consider the West Bank “occupied.” Colonialism and apartheid describe the situation more aptly, with Palestinians living in what are essentially Bantustans with no hope for self-determination. Israel withdrew its settlements in Gaza in 2005, but its inhabitants still suffer from a siege and collective punishment from Israel. Arabs within Israel live under different conditions from those in the Occupied Territories or from refugees who are barred from returning, but they are still systematically discriminated against by the Israeli regime. They may have formal citizenship, but, according to Noam Chomsky, they are barred from controlling or developing over 90 percent of the land. According to Judith Butler, “There are at least 20 laws that privilege Jews over Arabs within the Israeli legal system.”
Israel is not unique in its human rights abuses. It is imperative to stand up against all forms of military and economic domination, especially when we ourselves are complicit in it. Israel, however, is unique in its “special relationship” to our own government. The U.S. State Department does not “accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” but we do not hesitate to provide billions of dollars a year in military aid that makes settlement expansion possible.
I unconditionally condemn the targeting of civilians by Palestinian armed resistance groups. But none of my money funds those killings. Any citizen who does could be prosecuted for providing material support for terrorism under the Patriot Act. Our tax dollars and some of our University’s investments in certain corporations, however, fund Israel’s human rights abuses. Our politicians celebrate this funding as standing by a close ally. Our University administrators remain silent, refusing to take responsibility in how we are complicit in these human rights abuses by hiding behind the excuse of “it’s a complex issue.”
Our public discourse is severely limited in the realm of foreign policy, especially with regards to Palestine/Israel (just look at how Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing has progressed). But there is also difficulty speaking openly on the topic even on college campuses. Recently, Brooklyn College came under threat of losing public funding because its political science department agreed to host a talk on BDS. Ultimately, the lecture continued as planned, but it reminded me of the benefits of attending a private university during this time of austerity where our elected officials threaten the ideals of a free exchange of ideas and learning in our public institutions.
In late 2004, President Brodhead and the administration came under heat from some members of the community for allowing the Palestinian Solidarity Movement to hold its national convention on campus. The Duke community was forced to question its academic ideals and ultimately succeeded, but we came up short in a larger moral responsibility. With regards to divestment from Israel, President Brodhead echoed his predecessor Nan Keohane in calling it “a very blunt instrument to address an extremely complex issue around which there is little consensus and a great diversity of opinions both in the campus community and in the broader society. … I am aware of no change in the situation either in the Middle East or on campus that would justify moving to a different policy.”
So I ask President Brodhead and the Duke community: What kind of change are we waiting for? Consensus is already shifting at other top universities, with the Brown Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies issuing a statement in which they found Israel “indisputably engaged in ongoing systemic abuses of human rights and violations of international law.” But we shouldn’t have to wait for other top universities in order to follow suit. The injustices are clear. A just, non-violent course of action is available. Should we wait for the change, or shall we be the change-makers who call upon their university to respect the rights and dignity of all human beings?
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity senior and the president of Duke Students for Justice in Palestine. His column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Ahmad on Twitter @AhmadJitan.