For two student activists in Washington D.C., Israel Apartheid Week – and using the term ‘apartheid’ – is an opportunity to alter perceptions and the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whereas ‘occupation’ defines Israel/Palestine as a military struggle with ambiguous moral implications, ‘apartheid’ describes a civil rights struggle with a clear moral imperative.
By Joshua B. Michaels and Benjamin L. Mandel
This month, cities and campuses across the U.S. participated in the 9th Annual Israeli Apartheid Week. As the apartheid paradigm becomes more and more pervasive throughout American political discourse when discussing Israel, it is fair to ask: what is meant by “apartheid?”
Here, clarifications are in order: We are not talking about a system of oppression identical to apartheid South Africa. What we are talking about is a system that is similar to the oppression of South Africa, but also unique. The occupation in Israel/Palestine is more extreme than the older apartheid, while the segregation inside Israel proper is somewhat milder. We believe that in law and in spirit, the term “Israeli Apartheid” is fair when describing the sum of that regime. Instead of presenting a technical argument about whether the term is appropriate (more qualified figures have already done so), we want to argue why applying this term, and supporting Israeli Apartheid Week, are so important.
One of the biggest challenges to changing the status quo in the region is that the Israeli narrative dominates American media. Framing the discussion has been one of Israel’s strongest and most successful weapons against the Palestinians for the last 66 years. In the American media, Israel is almost always the protagonist. Even unflattering reports tend to elicit sympathy for the Israeli position. This is only just beginning to change, and slowly.
The most prominent example is the widely accepted understanding of the occupation. While the occupation itself is not viewed positively, the American media portrays it on Israel’s terms. For viewers here in the U.S., the term “occupation” invokes a temporary situation (in reality it is endless) based on security needs, which paints Israel as the victim. Adopting the term “apartheid” will re-direct this discussion away from Israeli anxiety and toward the everyday suffering of Palestinians. The oppressed will become the new protagonists. Occupation defines Israel/ Palestine as a military struggle with ambiguous moral implications, whereas apartheid describes a civil rights struggle with a clear moral imperative. It is this redistribution of sympathy, which makes Israeli Apartheid Week so powerful, and it is especially valuable in reaching out to American Jews for whom civil rights is almost secular religion.
Generally, apartheid week involves campuses and cities hosting talks relating to the nature of Israel’s apartheid system, and promotes the tactics laid out in the global BDS call. This is another important development because in our own history Americans have used similar tactics to right societal wrongs, from Montgomery to South Africa. Whether or not one supports such measures against Israel at large, or only against specific targets, we believe that Israel will not reform from within and international pressure is the only way to force a change. Such pressure will only follow widespread awareness and Apartheid Week has already grown rapidly over the last nine years. We believe that if the term is used by more and more actors; the more people read it in the paper, see it on the news, and hear it on the streets, the less it can be avoided.
Apartheid Week is therefore a chance to influence communities who are not being taught the realities of the conflict or never took the time to question the accepted narrative. We hope that when these realities become obvious, the demand for change will mount.
In our own experience on American campuses, we have already seen how effective the new Apartheid lexicon can be. After a recent screening of the film Roadmap to Apartheid at American University, a score of young student activists stayed after the film to discuss the validity and effectiveness of the apartheid claim. Certainly the discussion about how to best describe and combat Israel’s system of occupation and segregation should not end here, but there was a unanimous feeling that just four years ago, when many of us started out with Palestinian activism at American University, it was much more difficult to criticize Israel at all.
We believe IAW has contributed to the growth of a community of impassioned activists who understand that there is a system in place, which makes Palestinians prisoners in their own homes and Israelis prisoners of their own fear. And among them are a growing coalition of American Jews, who are speaking out because they are Jewish, not in spite of it.
Joshua B. Michaels is a student at American University, and the founder and president of the university’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Benjamin L. Mandel is the Jewish Voice for Peace liaison to the chapter at American University, where he is an alumnus.