This year has brought about another round ill-informed criticism of IAW. Matt Abra’s article, in a previous issue of the Manitoban, being just one example. While the article’s misrepresentations of IAW organizers and the Palestinian solidarity movement and what I see as thinly veiled accusations of anti-Semitism are problematic and have been refuted many times over in the ongoing meta-debate about IAW, he raises a few additional points that I find curious and believe need further exploration.
First off the fact of the matter is that the Israeli state is practising apartheid against the Palestinians. Palestinians living in Gaza have been under a brutal siege for years. Palestinians living in the West Bank have been subjected to a decades-long military occupation, and have been cut off from each other and from their land by a system of walls, checkpoints, and Israeli-only roads. Palestinian refugees remain scattered across the region and the world, having been denied their right to return for over 60 years. Palestinians have to deal with house demolitions, settler violence, and the Bantustanization of the West Bank. While one could write entire articles and books discussing all the nasty things the Israeli state does to Palestinians — people have — this is just a sampling of the daily practices of the Israeli state.
Under such a situation, it seems odd to suggest, as Abra does via a quote from historian Norman Cohn, that the problem is one of “Zealots on both sides” and that one should care about: “those caught in the middle who just want to lead their lives in relative peace and with some semblance of normalcy.” Israelis may be able to continue to live comfortable lives in relative peace and normalcy. That option is not available to Palestinians who have to face the brutality of an apartheid system, whether they engage in resistance or not. The word normalcy brings to mind a similar word — normalization — the process of making the unacceptable widely accepted, and, to quote Simone de Beauvoir, “hanging the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them.” Rather than “normalcy,” all Palestinians have to look forward to, if there is no movement towards Palestinian rights, is the normalization of apartheid.
In his article, Abra goes on to make a curious comment, one I am highlighting because it exemplifies a train of thought which sorely needs to be deconstructed and critiqued. Abra states: “Israel Apartheid Week (sic) has never seemed concerned with negotiating peace.” This is the “dialogue” argument — the argument that student activists should focus on engaging in “dialogue” initiatives, rather than organizing in support of Palestinian rights and using powerful words, like apartheid, and engaging in forceful activism.
First off, this notion that it is up to students in Manitoba to “negotiate peace” is odd. No one in Manitoba has the moral or political authority to represent any party in this matter. It is not the place of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) to speak on behalf of Palestinians and judge what kinds of proposals for their future are acceptable and unacceptable to them — our role is to act in solidarity with Palestinians, not dictate a political line to them.
Hypothetically, were SAIA and B’nai Brith on Campus to sit down over hummus and falafel and have some kind of miniature Oslo process, it would be an utterly pointless exercise. We could, in our model negotiation, think up some grandiose plan for a solution, and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to the Palestinian farmer in Hebron, who would continue to be beaten by settlers for daring to harvest his own olive trees.
Worse still, these kinds of “dialogue” initiatives are counterproductive. Instead of addressing the structural problems at the root of the conflict — colonialism, occupation and apartheid — these kinds of initiatives whitewash and reframe the conflict to one of ancient irrational hatreds and competing cultural narratives, which need to be heard and mutually validated. In reality, the problem is political and structural, and it is incredibly patronizing to demand that those concerned with Palestinian human rights spend their efforts validating a pro-apartheid political discourse instead of organizing against apartheid.
So, if trying to “negotiate peace” on campus won’t work, what should students who care about people suffering in Palestine/Israel do, beyond simply educating themselves?
First off, we need to call it like it is. Apartheid is the best, most comprehensive term to describe the situation in Israel/Palestine, and is a term which is grounded in international law. We can’t beat around the bush simply because a few people are uncomfortable with the term. If people support apartheid, perhaps they should be uncomfortable.
Secondly we need to take a rights based approach to the problem. Rather than trying to model the dysfunctional peace process — which many Palestinians quite rightly see as a process to grant legitimacy to the removal of Palestinian rights and to create Palestinian Bantustans — we need to critically examine how Palestinians are oppressed and which rights are denied.
This is where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement comes in. Looking at the situation, we can see that Israeli apartheid is a relatively complex system of oppression, in that it manifests itself differently against three broad categories of Palestinian — those living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, those facing racism as citizens of Israel and those scattered around the region and the world as refugees. As such, the key demands of the BDS movement — ending the occupation, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return — constitute a minimum program for a just solution for all three of these groups. The BDS movement is a non-violent movement, endorsed by a broad cross-section of Palestinian civil society.
Apartheid in South Africa didn’t fall because students in Manitoba decided to “negotiate peace” between blacks and whites. It fell because of intense pressure from anti-apartheid activists both within South Africa and around the world. Students in Manitoba were active as part of the global anti-apartheid movement, and in the course of that struggle faced many of the same criticisms that we see flung at IAW and SAIA today. Rather than attempting to delegitimize those who vocally criticize apartheid, it’s time for us to rise up and take our place as part of the new anti-apartheid movement.