You are going to hear a lot in the coming weeks. You are going to hear that Israel is an apartheid state, and you will likely hear it accused of genocide. These accusations are part of the message of Apartheid Week, a university-based movement that “seeks to raise awareness about Israel’s apartheid policies towards the Palestinians and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” We, the members of Wesleyan United with Israel, are fully prepared to acknowledge Israel’s faults, but we must take care when selecting our terminology. The words ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’ carry a lot of weight. In the case of Israel, they grossly misrepresent the situation, and thus inhibit meaningful discourse on our campus.
Apartheid refers to a “system or practice that separates people according to color, ethnicity, etc.” Apartheid policies involve “economically and politically oppressing an entire population” (dictionary.com). The most famous example occurred in South Africa. In Israel, there have been 69 Arab members of Parliament. Each citizen has an equal opportunity to vote. In the West Bank and Gaza, the local populations elect their own governments. Israel supports the West Bank and Gaza by helping to supply power and other necessities daily. Jews and Muslims serve side by side in the Israeli army. These few examples alone demonstrate how Israel is easily distinguishable from an apartheid state.
Genocide refers to the “deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation” (dictionary.com). Two of the most famous examples are the Holocaust and Armenian genocide. In Israel, there are no policies in place that come close to deserving the word ‘genocide.’ The Israeli government is not trying to eliminate the Palestinian population, nor would it have any incentive to do so. On the contrary, it engages in consistent efforts for peace talks with Palestinian leadership, and even goes to unprecedented lengths to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians. For example, before the counterterrorist Operation Protective Edge this summer, hundreds of Israeli Arabic-speaking technicians recorded phone messages that were dialed into the phones of more than 160,000 Arabs in the Gaza Strip, warning them to evacuate. The IDF willingly surrendered the element of surprise as it warned Hamas of the precise timing and location of the operation. In addition, Israel delivers truckloads of aid to the citizens of Gaza, even during wartime, when there is a risk of the aid ending up in the hands of Hamas.
Israel does not have an untainted military record, but neither does any country that is forced to deal with violent borders and cultural clashes. Nonetheless, the Israeli government continues to reexamine and investigate controversial military action in an effort to maintain a moral, accountable army. Israel is a flawed state, but it is a state that is actively seeking to better itself and to protect human life. Referring to Israel as an apartheid state delegitimizes the struggle of blacks against the Apartheid South African government and undermines the plight of other groups that have faced genuine apartheid policies. It is one thing to try to shed light on injustices, but it is another to fabricate them. What’s happening in the West Bank is an occupation, but it is a far cry from apartheid and genocide. Using such extreme terminology to describe Israel also distracts from real, present day problems in the Middle East. In the face of true human rights abuses, such as those involving the Syrian government and ISIS, it is both contradictory and counterproductive to direct our energy against Israel, a country whose human rights abuses are grossly exaggerated.
Furthermore, open and baseless hostility towards Israel decreases the possibility of peace. No country that feels threatened, both by its allies and its enemies, will willingly make concessions at the expense of its own security. Since any ceded land could potentially fall into the hands of terrorist organizations like Hamas, we must recognize that Israel will only make territorial concessions when it feels its allies, particularly the United States, would support it under attack. In fact, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nearly reached a peace deal in 2008, American-Israeli relations were at an all time high. Blindly condemning Israel and engaging in practices like boycott and divestment makes Israel feel threatened and thereby inhibits peace.
We believe that our words should be used to have a healthy, balanced Israel dialogue on campus, and this is especially important during Apartheid Week. We encourage criticism of existing policies and institutions in the Middle East–Israel included. However, the reactions to our Facebook event for Free Israeli Late Night demonstrates how problematic the Israel dialogue can be on this campus. Something is wrong when students are attacked for celebrating simply the food and culture of a vibrant democracy. We implore you to keep your words grounded in facts rather than unfounded, sensationalized information. It is this rationale of truth that will ultimately bring about the social change we all wish to see.