This week, Palestine Societies on campuses across the country will be hosting their annual event, ‘Israel Apartheid Week’. Activities held during this time have typically included proposed boycotts, the shutting down of academic freedom and intimidating public spectacles.
Yet despite the title ‘Israel Apartheid Week,’ the supporters of this event, mostly from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, always fail to address what apartheid really means. Apartheid has always meant the deliberate separation of peoples’ based upon their ethnic background, as practised by the racist regime in South Africa. Israel has done nothing of the sort, and the freedom enjoyed by Israel’s large Muslim and Christian Arab minorities is testament to this.
Furthermore, the boycotters have certainly not done their homework. Boycotts in fact promote separation. They foster misunderstanding, hostility and intransigence. Many Oxford students will remember George Galloway’s infamous walk out on ex-Oxford student Eylon Aslan-Levy, on the dubious grounds that he doesn’t debate with Israelis. Of course this was a rather extreme incident, yet it is in many ways the natural logical conclusion of a doctrine which attacks co-operation between Israeli and non-Israeli scientists, academics, businessmen and artists. Whilst aiming to only target the policies of the Israeli government, the outcome has been that ordinary Israelis, regardless of their political opinions, have been fair game for boycotters. The irony is not lost that a movement which aims to fight inequality and social injustice actually promotes both. The boycotters, in effect, endorse apartheid.
The boycott movement recently received headlines over Scarlett Johansson’s work with the Israeli company SodaStream. SodaStream employs over 500 Palestinian workers at their principal factory at Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank. Were the factory to be closed down (as many boycotters have demanded), all of those Palestinian workers would lose their superior wages and working conditions and be forced to enter the poorer job market in the Palestinian Authority. After Scarlett Johansson appeared in a recent SodaStream advert, she was forced to end her work with Oxfam. In her statement defending her brave decision, Johansson stated that she was “not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”
She could not be more right. Anyone who is serious about a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must understand that in order for peace to be sustainable, Arabs and Jews must work with each other, trade with each other, talk to each other and ultimately live with each other. Boycotts do nothing of the sort – they drive the moderates on each side further apart and in fact accelerate segregation.
The apartheid analogy has also been applied to Israel’s security barrier. Whilst walls may separate, they can also save lives. It is not an insignificant fact that the number of Israelis killed in suicide bombings dropped immensely after the erection of the security barrier in the early 2000’s. Moreover, it is only in the urbanised areas that the fence has been transformed into a wall. Over 90% of the security barrier is in fact a fence. Between January 2000 and July 2003, the height of the Second Palestinian Intifada, there were 73 suicide bombings inflicting over 2000 casualties. It was in this context that the barrier was constructed. Since then, there have been 12 major attacks. It goes to show the misrepresentation of some of the more important aspects of Israel’s security needs.
In my opinion, there is nothing as odious as comparing the racist, totalitarian laws of South Africa to the difficult but often necessary security measures implemented by the State of Israel. F. W. de Klerk, the man who jointly ended apartheid with Nelson Mandela, has said the same.
The Israeli people, like the Palestinian people, have their own history. The trauma of the past 66 years has solidified unending animosity between two national narratives – both re-telling the same series of events, but with very different memories. Anyone who tries to convince you that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a simple moral issue is deeply misguided. On that account alone, the apartheid analogy is truly unhelpful.
As a student body, we all have a duty to normalise discourse surrounding Israel. The political situation in Israel is deeply complicated and there are no easy answers. But we cannot deny that it is a thriving democracy with all the diversity and freedom of expression one would expect in any Western European nation. In no other country in the Middle East, would you witness everything from Islamists to secular Communists debating in the nation’s parliament. The sciences, culture, academia, business – all things at which Israel excels – aspire to universal values which transcend national differences. These are not things that can be simply boycotted. This is not the time to call an entire country an apartheid state. 2014 is the time to rethink Israel.