Bradley Burston’s post in Haaretz comparing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to apartheid made waves, and like many others, I noticed. Burston is a writer I follow and appreciate, and I usually agree with his views.
This time, too, I agreed with most of what he wrote with one critical exception: his espousal of the a-word. Burston wrote that we need courageous acts to “defeat the regime of racism and denial of human rights.” That’s true, but using the word apartheid word is not courageous. The word doesn’t apply to Israel, and it obscures the real problems here. Furthermore, accepting this analogy will not change the situation or end the occupation from within, an urgent priority if Israel wants to remain democratic.
As an activist and former spokesperson for one of Israel’s leading human rights organizations, I have encountered the apartheid analogy many times over the past 10 years. Foreign journalists often asked me to comment on this expired South African legal system. But why should I talk about someone else’s problems when I have plenty to say about our own? Since the Second Intifada, Israel’s policy of segregating Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank has become entrenched in separate roads, legal systems, and in other avenues of life, strangling Palestinians’ freedoms and their ability to live normative lives. These policies and actions are also killing our democracy. But they don’t make for sexy headlines. It’s easier to borrow a convenient, loaded term — no matter how mismatched it is to the situation — and paste it on to our complicated problems.
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation implemented in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Israel occupies another people and denies them basic human rights. Thus our situation is vastly different from the South African one. Because the Palestinian Authority never became a full, sovereign state, Palestinians in the West Bank live in purgatory under the administration of a half-baked government; they do not have rights as Israeli citizens, but they are also not citizens of their own state. This is in contrast to Palestinian citizens of Israel who have equal rights to Israeli Jews (in theory, but that’s a different issue). It’s in the West Bank where Israeli residents of settlements and Palestinian non-citizens live by different laws, which are generally beneficial to the former and harmful to the latter. Thus, Israel’s segregation is not by race, but by nationality. Yet, it’s more complicated than that. My point is: Let’s stop the futile comparisons and start focusing on our own problems, not those of others.
In Israel, the analogy is a provocation. It was initially used to shock people — like when Israelis and Palestinians evoke the Holocaust to get attention. It aims to make Israelis and our supporters abroad look in the mirror and realize that we endorsing, or at least not stopping, serious crimes comparable to the despicable South African regime. While this may be true, it has the opposite effect. The term repels most Israelis and many Diaspora Jews because it simplifies the situation. While they may be sympathetic to Palestinians’ suffering and the consequences of the occupation on both sides, the a-word refers to another time and place, making people dismiss the comparison outright. Instead of forcing them to face our offenses head-on and determine how to overcome them, these potential supporters get lost on semantics.
Attention-grabbing slogans help us classify things and overlook the nuances. Now that we’ve labeled it, we can file it in the appropriate drawer. As such, it may be easy for foreign observers to categorize Israel in this respect, to discount us, but we Israelis don’t have that luxury.
In this vein, I understand Burston’s despair at seeing the country he loves implode. I feel the same way. We are desperate for hope, a light to lead us out of this mess, especially following the violence of recent weeks. With a government which sustains the occupation and its inherent injustices, we feel the need to take extreme measures to change things, but we have run out of options.
If the apartheid analogy doesn’t change things, what concrete actions can we take?
We can return to the streets as we did in the summer of 2011, but the chances of changing our government are slim, in light of election results just five months ago.
Burston implies that he supports the BDS movement, in line with the one that contributed to the toppling of the racist South African regime. So why not just say it outright?
But if so, where does that leave us, the Israelis who are against the occupation but boycotted from the outside? Where does that leave supporters of Israel abroad who believe in our democratic future and in ending the occupation but don’t want to harm us at the same time?
I don’t have an effective, foolproof solution, but I do know that faulty labels will not solve Israel’s existential problem.