Shayna Abramson

The importance of labels (no, I don’t mean Chanel)

In order to prosecute a crime, first, one must clearly define it. This is why many legal systems have different degrees of sexual assault, mapping the punishments onto different physical acts. It is definitions that imbue acts with moral and social valence. For example, before Raphael Lemkin coined and defined the term “genocide”, although the components existed, there was no genocide in its gestalt as a socio-moral concept.

Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide helped change history: His definition became the basis for a number of definitions of genocide, including the UN’s. Without a legal definition, the UN would have been unable to properly prosecute genocide perpetrators, which is the UN’s main arm of attack against genocide. (Its abysmal non-efforts at proper genocide prevention are beyond the scope of this post.)

Precise definitions do more than offer proper legal recourse however: They also offer truth. That is why a victim may feel empowered by the simple act of levying a proper accusation in court. Truth is one of the few things we can offer victims; this is why there is a flurry of activity capturing Holocaust survivor testimony, and why truth and reconciliation commissions have been successfully used to help heal ethnic strife.

It is because of the importance of precise and accurate definitions in the realm of human rights, that I am particularly concerned with the mislabeling of Israel as an apartheid state. Such a mislabeling deliberately obfuscates the definition of apartheid, forming a grave injustice towards those who have suffered apartheid in the past, and making it more difficult to fight apartheid in the future.

Furthermore, mislabeling the injustices done towards Palestinians is unfair to Palestinians both in that it does not tell the true story, and in that it discredits the entire pro-Palestinian movement, thus making it harder for pro-Palestinian activists to achieve their aims.

It is important to tell the truth about human rights in Israel and in the territories -a truth that includes human rights abuses aimed at Israelis. It is mind-boggling that no Palestinian terror organization representative has been brought before the International Criminal Court and that the UN has issued no direct condemnations of organizations that blow up Israeli five-year olds.

But of course, that is because the UN was created for an era of nation-states. It is its job to ensure that the nation-states that comprise its membership adhere to the international guidelines that it creates. Our world however, is one in which non-governmental organizations are increasingly becoming political-military actors. This is certainly the case here, where Israel is a proper nation-state being terrorized by non-state actors. This makes it much harder to Israel to fight the terror, both militarily and diplomatically. This also makes it more difficult to broker peace, since there is no clear partner for Israel to negotiate with.

In a region with so many competing narratives, creating a false narrative of apartheid cannot be the answer. Telling the truth, and the different truths, may be only a small step towards greater justice, but sometimes that is the most important step: Without the correct diagnosis, there can be no correct treatment.

The truth is so important, that sometimes you have to switch metaphors towards the end of a blog post in order to reveal it, even if it makes you cringe. Then, you decide that you sound didactic and start pondering Derrida.

That’s when its time to stop writing, and go make yourself a cup of coffee.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.