As one passes by the Israeli Apartheid Wall outside Usdan, one cannot help but notice the glaring caption, “From Palestine to Mexico, all these walls have got to go.”
At first glance, it may seem that the barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian territories is analogous to Trump’s intended wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. After all, a boundary is a boundary, and the reality that both Israel and the United States are currently led by right-wing leaders only augments the illusion that the two are one and the same.
However, if one considers the two barriers beyond the most surface level, it becomes clear that they are entirely distinct from one another. It would be absurd to claim that Mexico poses a security threat to the United States, and the “apartheid wall” separating Israel from the Palestinian territories is actually mostly a border fence, with the exception of the 10 percent concrete section alongside densely populated areas. Its impetus was a campaign launched in the early 2000s that took the lives of over one thousand Israelis. Security measures undeniably make life more difficult for the Palestinians, and consequences include, but are not limited to, Palestinian economic hardship, and the indignity of a daily commute through Israeli checkpoints. Yet, these measures have also been tremendously effective in impeding the entry of would-be suicide bombers into Israeli population centers.
Pairing the security barrier in Israel with such a salient and emotionally charged example as Trump’s intended wall along the border with Mexico makes it easy for people to make quick, almost automatic, mental associations, unevenly aligned as they may be. Each time a student passes by the Israeli Apartheid Wall outside Usdan, this false equivalency becomes strengthened, and soon enough, knee-jerk associations become dogmatic.
The above is just one of the examples of the ways in which Israeli Apartheid Week strips a complicated reality into a one-dimensional, seemingly unambiguous narrative. Even the usage of “apartheid” is misleading.
The word apartheid is an Afrikaans word for “separateness,” and it speaks to the system of racist legislation that existed in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s. In apartheid-era South Africa, it was illegal for nonwhites to serve in the national government, to hold certain jobs, to marry or have sexual relations with those outside of their racial communities, and even to be in the same public spaces as their white counterparts. In Israel, all citizens are technically equal under the law, with Arab citizens of Israel enjoying the right to vote, be elected to Israel’s parliament and Supreme Court, and serve as heads of leading hospitals and universities, et cetera.
Israel certainly has its faults, and Arabs residing in Israel suffer from institutionalized racism. This is a deeply troubling reality. However, instead of operating as an apartheid state, one could more rightly say that in Israel there is a religious monopoly over state institutions, a military occupation in the West Bank, and a blockade in Gaza (upheld by Egypt, too, by the way). How about that for a complicated situation?
Rabab Abdulhadi, one of the Israeli Apartheid Week speakers at Wesleyan this year, touched upon the nature of the word apartheid in her lecture. She asked her audience, “Is the proper name to name what’s happening in Palestine apartheid?”
As part of her answer, she shared that the word apartheid is a short catchphrase. “When you are doing a political campaign, you have to have some lines,” she continued. Abdulhadi’s concession reveals that labeling Israel as an apartheid state, at its core, is a strategic means of engaging students, deceptive as it may be.
I sympathize with student activists on campus who want to inspire their fellow peers to care, and a compelling way to draw people into any cause is to provide them with tangible examples that make an emotional appeal. I would like to take seriously the student organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week and their activism. While I may deeply and fundamentally disagree with them, I respect their right to organize, and I believe that a free marketplace of ideas is crucial to growth and to learning.
Even so, Israeli Apartheid Week compromises factual integrity with expediency. It disseminates a simplistic narrative wherein no moral ambiguity exists, where the powerful is inherently “bad” and the weak is inherently “good,” where intellectual honesty comes second to advertising. If the purpose of Israeli Apartheid Week is to educate students and enlighten them to the Palestinian plight, then manipulative, reductionist messaging does students a disservice.
While the events spanning Israeli Apartheid Week discuss the Palestinian plight under Israeli occupation, they seem to neglect the injustices Palestinians experience at the hands of their own governments. And none of the events speak to the hardships of Palestinian refugees in diaspora, the vast majority of which do not enjoy citizenship in their host countries.
This is not to say that Israel should not be critiqued or held accountable for her actions. There are problems in Israel. I remain opposed to the Nation State Law in Israel, which has demoted Arabic from an official language of the country to one with “special status.” I am terrified that Israel’s elections (held earlier this week), will lead to a right-wing coalition government with influences that seek to annex the West Bank. I abhor settlement expansion, which make Israeli pleas for peace seem hollow, as they effectively squash the possibility of a two-state settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Notwithstanding Israel’s flaws, it is a country I am deeply proud of and deeply care for, and one that is held to a high standard. There is a fine line between critiquing certain policies in Israel, and demonizing the entire country. Disproportionately, it seems that Israeli Apartheid Week is preoccupied with the latter. I would ask that Israeli Apartheid Week supporters equally honor the right of self-determination for both Palestinians and Jews.
Shani Erdman is a member of the class of 2019 and can be reached at email@example.com.