Today marks the start of this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week, a yearly event held first in Toronto in 2005 and now in 55 cities around the world which draws attention to Israel’s citizenship policies which are based on principles of racial separation. Events at Israeli Apartheid Weeks are also used to raise awareness of the Israeli military’s various crimes, and generally support the rights of the Palestinians, which includes those living under Israeli Occupation, blockade, and also the diaspora, to self-determination.
My school, York University, has been the site of many tense rallies and protests where clashes between zionist and pro-palestinian activists produces situations no one is proud of. So it’s not surprising that IAW at York is a tense affair: while there were no IAW tables at York today there was a strong presence of Christian Zionists, and there were more police in the halls than I have ever seen on campus.
While I was unable to attend the IAW events at York today, I attended the inaugeral U of T IAW event tonight which included presentations by Judy Rebick, Abigail Bakan, and a presentation by the U of T campus group “Students Against Israeli Apartheid” where they announced demands that U of T divest from 4 companies it current invests in which directly support and profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Blockade, and military campaigns against Palestinian civilians such as the massacre appropriately named “Cast Lead”. The companies are BAE systems, Northrop Group, Lockheed Martin, and Hewlett Packard.
Abigail Bakan‘s talk was the most scholarly, and also the most useful to me, of the presentations given. She gave an analysis of the history of the term “Apartheid”, and made a case for its appropriateness as used in the expression “Israeli Apartheid”. If you have 47 dollars, or journal access through a university or proxy server, you might want to read her article “Israel/Palestine, South Africa and the ‘One-State Solution’: The Case for an Apartheid Analysis“. My summery will not be adequate, but here goes:
She began by pointing out that the term Apartheid means “separateness”, and was the self-declared policy of the South African state between 1948 and 1990. The separateness at hand was a racial one, and that state was proud to self-declare that it possessed a differential citizenship policy based on racial separateness. Since then, the term has expanded to be used to refer to other forms of separateness, such as in the terms “global apartheid” which refers to the disparity between the global north and south, and “economic apartheid”. These terms are used with little fanfare – for instance their employment rarely provokes a front page story on the national post. There is also an international law statute which concerns the “crime of apartheid“, under stood to be “the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by oneracial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.
So the question to ask in the context of an event called “Israeli Apartheid Week” is obvious: given what we know about the term ‘apartheid’ and its history, is Israel an apartheid state? We might first look at what its politiciens say – no major Israeli political parties claim Israel is an apartheid state. And, that’s obviously a major difference from South Africa, where the state did claim to be an apartheid state. But, Bakan pointed out, the fact that a state disagrees that it has a particular property is not a sufficient reason for believing that it does not have this property. For instance, Stalin might have said the USSR was a “communist” country, but we needn’t believe him – we can apply what we know about communism to the empirical situation of Stalin’s Russia and ask if the definition actually fits the case. Similarly, the United States calls itself a democracy, but whether it is a democracy or a plutocracy is an empirical and theoretical question which is to be decided by your own analysis and judgement, not an appeal to authority.
Another point we often see made by those who oppose IAW is that apartheid refers specifically to the situation of South Africa, so it is equivocation to call Israeli apartheid, and this does violence to the South African struggle. I wrote a long piece on this last year, but I think Bakan’s approach is better than mine: she simply pointed out that many situations of oppression which are now deemed international crimes were first associated with a specific state, and a specific struggle. For instance, the term “slavery” when it became a crime referred to the Atlantic slave trade – but it is not accepted to use the term “slavery” to refer to anywhere someone is enslaved, not merely people enslaved in that particular history. Similarly, the crime of “genocide” was first drawn up to persecute the Nazi regime, but that is not given as a reason why other states which commit the crime as defined under international law should not be tried with genocide.
If we want to know whether Israel is apartheid, we should look at what the word means today, and ask if the situation in Israel and the territories fits the meaning. If the term means a differential citizenship policy based on race, and the domination of one racial group over another, then quite clearly the Israeli territories are “Apartheid”: a person born Jewish in the territories has far greater rights than a person born in the same town to non-Jewish parents. Thus it is ensured that while the Israeli settlers in the territories gain full Israeli citizenship rights, and can travel and work anywhere in Israel, people born to non Jewish families have fewer rights and are, according to Bakan, increasingly exploited as a cheap labour pool by Israeli industry.
So, if you live in Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal or Belfast or Boston or Dublin or Edmonton or London Ontario or New York City or Peterborough or Winnipeg or Waterloo, or any of the other cities where IAW is happening this year, try to make it out to one of their events. And if you do, tell me how it goes, and feel free to comment below.