Israeli Apartheid Week is upon us again, and while Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine sets up on College Walk, campus organizations from Hillel to LionPAC are launching responses and beginning damage control.
IAW's detractors are quick to argue that using the term "apartheid" to describe Israeli occupation diminishes South African apartheid victims' suffering and exaggerates the current situation in Israel/Palestine. Time and again, C-SJP hears that equating Israeli occupation with apartheid is a sensationalist, divisive tactic that, in the words of Columbia Hillel's Ariel Brickman, represents a "perverse paradigm of prejudice against the Jewish state."
In spite of this, C-SJP still works to expose Israeli apartheid in solidarity with South African activists and organizations that condemn Israeli occupation and recognize the presence of Israeli apartheid. International law scholars—ranging from London's School of Oriental and African Studies to the British Institute for International and Comparative Law—conducted an exhaustive 2009 study published by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa identifying three pillars of Israeli law and policy that are consistent with apartheid and colonialism as defined by international law. Similarly, Nobel laureate and former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written extensively on the parallels between South African apartheid and racial discrimination and segregation experienced by Palestinians under occupation and within Israel. These are just two examples of South African intellectuals, activists, and organizations joining the call for Israeli accountability.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as an "institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups." It does not limit its usage to South Africa's case, where racial groups were demarcated and accorded varying degrees of legal rights, geographically segregated, and restricted from travelling through different areas based on their racial identities. Furthermore, the South African regime greatly suppressed resistance to its inhumane policies. Today in Israel, several laws and policies give preferential treatment to Jews over non-Jews, break up the West Bank through illegal appropriation and settlement of land, and limit Palestinians' ability to travel freely within the West Bank. The Israeli government consistently restricts Palestinian freedom of movement and expression under the guise of security. Apartheid is alive and well in Israel/Palestine. Until Hillel recognizes this, we cannot have productive dialogue on how to challenge this oppressive system.
Beyond arguing the semantics of Israel's discriminatory practices, some of IAW's critics sidestep the issue of occupation and instead frame Israel as a beacon of democracy in a region marred by corrupt and repressive regimes. The Israeli government and pro-Israel groups across North America and Europe have hosted Faces of Israel and Israel Straight Talk, campaigns attempting to highlight Israel's diversity by tokenizing minority groups such as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, queers, and Ethiopians, and sending them to universities to counter claims of apartheid and discrimination. During Israeli Apartheid Week 2011, LionPAC hosted a Faces of Israel event at Columbia that brought three Ethiopian-Israelis, one Israeli queer, and one Palestinian with Israeli citizenship to speak about "what being part of a minority community in Israel really means." This tactic allows pro-Israel groups to evade discussion of Palestinian human rights violations by hiding behind a disingenuous image of utopian democracy. In spite of this, there remain outspoken Palestinians, queers, Ethiopians, and others who insist that this vision does not represent the daily realities for many minorities in Israel and Palestine.
Israel must account for policies that are clearly discriminatory and in violation of international law. To not openly discuss the reality of unjust laws, racial and geographic segregation, and suppressed freedom of expression in Israel/Palestine—all criteria of apartheid—is an implicit admission of apartheid policies. Honest discussions on Columbia's campus about occupation are particularly crucial given our association with Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund, which provides pensions to Columbia faculty and invests in five key companies (Caterpillar, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, Veolia, and Elbit Systems) that profit from Israel's occupation, which violates international law. Hillel and LionPAC argue that their goal is to promote peace, but denying an apartheid system—a direct barrier to peace—prevents meaningful action. C-SJP's goal of promoting IAW is not to display prejudice against Israel, but to expose and discuss the injustices Israel perpetrates. Apartheid in Israel is not just an injustice for Palestinians, but it is an injustice for all who live in Israel and Palestine.
The author is a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences first-year pursuing an MA in the Islamic Studies program. She is a member of C-SJP. This op-ed is written on behalf of C-SJP.