Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) came out with a new report accusing Israel of apartheid. In January, B’Tselem published their own report accusing Israel of apartheid. Reactions to the reports were swift. They were quickly supported by many left-wing organizations critical of Israel, including statements saying “apartheid is part of the reality on the ground” and “it could not be more clear. It’s apartheid”. This reflects a growing chorus of voices on the left charging Israel with apartheid.
Pro-Israel organizations also immediately responded by calling the report a lie and asserting that it was focused on delegitimizing Israel with false comparisons to South African apartheid. Members of the Israeli government even called the report “a collection of lies and fabrications, bordering on antisemitic, which is part of the organization’s ongoing campaign against Israel” and propaganda.
The reactions on both sides of the political spectrum on Israel are nothing new and precisely the reason why we should not call Israel apartheid. Instead of discussing how to positively impact the lives of Palestinians living under Israeli control, pro and anti-Israel groups go back and forth on the merits of the term “apartheid”. More and more energy is spent on the meaning of the term itself and less on the actual facts on the ground. Less time is spent talking about how The Oslo Accords helped create this reality and how everyday Palestinians lack real freedom of movement or ability to get through checkpoints with dignity and ease. We should be talking about the failure of Palestinian, Israeli, American, and Arab leadership for not doing more to create a better reality for people who at one point or another were under their control. Instead, we retreat to our echo chambers of either agreeing or disagreeing with the word “apartheid”.
This is not about dismissing what is happening to Palestinians everyday. This is not about dismissing Israeli security fears. This is about supporters and detractors of Israel hiding behind the word “apartheid” to avoid talking about the realities of the other side. Until pro-Israel organizations acknowledge and openly push to curb racism within Israeli society or openly criticize the settlement enterprise as detrimental to Israel’s long-term future, or actively work to help create for more freedoms for Palestinians, nothing will actually change. Until anti-Israel organizations acknowledge the generational and lived trauma Israelis hold, address the legitimate security needs of the country, and stop questioning Israel’s legitimacy, nothing will actually change.
Luckily, there are cross-border peacebuilding organizations (not a complete list) both in the United States and Israel/Palestine that recognize this and are actively working to create positive change on the ground. Their statements regarding the recent B’Tselem and HRW reports echo this. These organizations deserve more attention and support for the work they do to make the lives of Israelis and Palestinians better.
When I lived in Israel back in 2014-2015, a friend of mine had the opportunity to visit the West Bank. When I met him in Tel Aviv after his visit and asked him how it was, he said “it’s not apartheid, but it’s something”. After my own visits to the West Bank, he could not have been more right. Arguing over the definition of a word does nothing to change the facts on the ground. Supporting the efforts of peace building organizations do.