Ori Tsameret, Intersections Editor
January 27, 2021
On Monday, Jan. 18, Israeli nongovernmental organization B’Tselem issued a tweet publicizing their report describing the material reality of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians as “apartheid.” The organization, which serves as “The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories,” cited Israel’s Nation State Law and the formal annexation attempts of 2020 as having driven them to use such strong wording.
The decision to use an intense descriptor like “apartheid” was a vexed one. Among all Jewish and Palestinian communities, terminology is widely debated on the issue of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territiories, but this public declaration is the first of its kind. Israeli, Jewish, on-site organizations and individuals have largely controlled narratives on Israeli occupation and have seldom spoken out against it to this extent. That is not to say, however, that B’Tselem did so blindly: both their report and the graphic pamphlet they created detailed immigration, living spaces and conditions, restrictions on movement and political inequities as evidence of a systemic segregation worthy of “apartheid.”
Even prior to this declaration, tension has been steadily building surrounding the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, namely regarding its formal attempt at annexation and withholding of vaccines for the coronavirus to Palestinians. Naturally then, individuals both on the right and left political wings swarmed the controversy, with some condemning the language as inflammatory and divisive, while others echoed the report and built upon it.
“B’Tselem using the word ‘apartheid’ gives an inaccurate depiction of the situation in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank,” Tulane student Lexie Herman, who says she has a “spiritual and educational” connection to Israel, said. “The term ‘apartheid’ is heavily associated with segregation in South Africa, a situation in itself that should not be remembered lightly … regardless of the treatment Palestinians face, I feel as if the word ‘apartheid’ adds an amount of unnecessary extremity to the situation.” On the other hand, self described Jewish and anti-Zionist student Frankie Gaynor said that “Palestinian people are very much disenfranchised, and although you might isolate some people or miss some nuances by calling it apartheid, I do think it’s a pretty similar and accurate structural framework,” but she cautioned against potential policy reprecussions the wording might lead to. Indeed, the usage of the word “apartheid” inevitably ties policies in the direction of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, which was partially inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.
One must consider at what point institutional discrimination and systemic violence can officially be placed into the framework of apartheid. B’Tselem’s argument points to an overarching pattern that permeates the Israeli social structure and establishes an ethnic hierarchy that creates apartheid de facto, to the extent that different ethnic groups may even take different roads. Romy Whitesell, a self proclaimed “pro-Palestine” but “not anti-Jewish state” student, said that “certain actions such as withholding adequate clean water supplies, restrictions on Palestinian mobility, segregated settlements and continuing to destroy Palestinian homes to create settlements all are clear violations of Palestinian human rights and serve as stark examples of cultural suppression,” backing this paradigm.
As this issue is near to the heart of Jewish and Middle Eastern students alike, descriptors used are central to the feelings and morale of different cultural and political communities. Despite the fact that, according to Whitesell, the apartheid analogy has long been used by a myriad of political figures such as President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “It’s not surprising that some Israelis would feel outraged at the belief that Israel is an apartheid state, as many see Israel as a land of peace, hope, protection and opportunity for the Jewish people,” and this would inherently create tension within Jewish spaces. Gaynor echoed this, saying that “You can lose people in semantics.”
It is important to consider, however, that the semantics in question are largely dominated by an Israeli, Jewish canon that has long influenced American politics through lobbyist organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and wealthy citizens who exercise their influence on cultural institutions and governments. These groups regulate American diasporic communities to the extent that these groups even impact whose narratives are part of the education students get.
Of course, this canon is behind the times, with Palestinians already using “apartheid” to describe their plight. In spite of common beliefs that oppressed groups should be allowed to lead the conversation surrounding their experiences, Jewish and Israeli commentators, such as myself, are able to center themselves just as much, if not more, within Palestinian narratives.
While this step by B’Tselem is perhaps the first of many amongst Jewish and Israeli communities’ process of reckoning with the material reality of a Jewish ethnostate, many key players are pushing back against this narrative: at best, progressive diasporic organizations are lagging in their political alignments, and at worst, Israeli politicians are restricting freedom of speech on the matter. In order for this geopolitical issue to be resolved, conversations must be opened, not shut down, and it is my hope that this report will lead to more open discourse in the long run.
A Jewish studies professor was also reached for comment on this topic, but opted not to respond.