Moving beyond the rhetoric

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The Arab-Israeli conflict is one that many students on campus shy away from due to the, at times, unbearable tension and controversy that ensues when it is discussed. However, being one of the major global issues of our time, the conflict should be one that students feel comfortable broaching in an academic environment that will support tolerant and diverse opinions.

Representing one side of the conflict is Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual campus event that seeks to analogize Israel to apartheid in South Africa — that is, when the government of South Africa politically, legally and economically discriminated against its non-white citizens. IAW subsequently calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel. When asked about their stance on IAW, one of the student election candidates argued that the event is one that brings “critical conversation” to campus. If this is truly one of the goals of IAW and the group Students Against Israel Apartheid, is it one that can reasonably be accomplished within the proposed framework?

In my opinion, the answer to this question is a resounding “No.” From the outset, proponents of IAW define Israel supporters as “pro-apartheid,” an easy way to delegitimize the latter’s arguments without ever having to engage in critical conversation. Instead all IAW provides is a skewed monologue — one that offers a reduced and misinforming account of the realities of living in Israel.

To gain perspective on what it is really like living in the state of Israel, we don’t have to look far from home. Josh Palay and Omri Golden-Plotnik are students from the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, respectively, who have spent the past year living and studying in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. They have taken classes from both Jewish and Arab professors on a wide array of topics related to the conflict. Moreover Palay, who is working towards a bachelor of science, is currently interning at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, where both Arab and Jewish doctors work together to treat patients of all races and creeds. As Palay describes, the hospital’s strict policy of non-discrimination offers a sense of community. He noted that: “Being able to speak Arabic is actually considered an asset in order to communicate with Arab patients.”

Of course, the diversity of Israeli life does not end in Israeli hospitals. Arabs make up nearly 25 percent of Israeli citizenry and enjoy the same rights and freedoms that all Israeli citizens do. They vote, form political parties, own property and run businesses. Israeli Arabs are also members of Israeli Parliament and the Israeli Supreme Court, and serve in the national service and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Moreover all citizens of Israel are afforded, among others, the freedoms of religion and of speech, which includes the freedom to criticize the country’s government and leaders, something few other Middle Eastern states grant.

One might expect that Israel is subsumed in a constant state of strife, an expectation that is certainly reinforced by media images and the discord surrounding discussions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, when asked what has surprised him the most about living in Israel, Golden-Plotnik, a third year criminal justice student, replied: “The level of cooperation — everybody, for the most part, gets along. It’s not like what you see on TV, people aren’t constantly fighting in the streets.”
Of course, it’s not that fighting never happens. But, as Palay adds: “It’s just not part of the national conscience.”

This latter point Jeff Brojges can personally attest to. Brojges has a bachelor of arts, double honours in political science and economics from the University of Manitoba and is currently working on a joint masters of public administration and business administration at U of M and U of W. He also served in the IDF from May 2006 to October 2008, alongside both Jewish and Arab-Israeli citizens. For Brojges, the most poignant part of his experience was coming to understand the true meaning of Israeli Defense Forces.

“You cannot understand how important that title is until you’re there. Every time we were on a mission, it kept being reinforced for me — Israel has no reason to pursue a fight, it is purely defensive. We guard everything for the sake of citizens’ security,” he said.

This is of course a point of contention for many debating the Arab-Israeli conflict, and certainly one argued against by those claiming that Israel is an apartheid state. However these individuals mistakenly gloss over the fact that this policy of defence is one that IDF soldiers are reminded of on a constant basis and one that Israel takes very seriously. As noted by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz in his book The Case for Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court has played a more substantial role than any other court in the world, past or present, in ensuring its country’s military operations fall within the rule of law.

In fact it was Dershowitz’s book that inspired Kasim Hafeez, a British Muslim who was once a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist and anti-Semite, to go to Israel and see for himself the “apartheid state.” Instead, Hafeez found himself in, as he described it, “a democratic state, a state which provides freedoms completely alien in the region, freedom of worship, expression and sexual orientation, the same values that bind all true democracies.”

“Israel was truly refreshing and I really felt at home. It’s one of Israel’s most amazing feats that, faced with numerous security threats, it maintains its freedoms and democracy,” he added.

Of course, this side of Israel is never presented at events such as IAW. It is maintained that Israel is a racist state, simply because it’s much easier to make this claim than to have to concede that the conflict is more complicated than the classic “villain/underdog” situation being presented. Past and present organizers of IAW and related events must realize that they pose nothing but an obstacle to critical conversation — a conversation that requires the recognition of all sides’ realities and histories.

Thus I propose that, if critical conversation is really going to start on campus, we need to re-frame the context. Why not have Palestinian Rights Week or Israel Peace Week? These are causes both sides can and should agree on, and causes like these offer the grounds for engaging in a discussion on how goals might be achieved. As Hafeez illuminates, critical conversation will only start when we all stop working towards the “vilification of one side and negating the wrongs of another,” and simply begin to try to understand each other.

Alexa Yakubovich wants all students to start moving beyond the rhetoric, and towards truly critical conversations.

2 Comments on "Moving beyond the rhetoric"

  1. Polisci Student | April 2, 2012 at 9:26 pm |

    While you request a move “beyond the rhetoric” you fail to omit that rhetoric from your own article. The IDF may provide security to it’s citizenry, but it is that exact notion of who is a citizen in Israel that is the main point of contention to the conflict. IAW works to shed light on the fact that Israelis are allowed full citizen rights under the law, while Palestinians are not. Rather than exploring IAW’s claims, you dismiss IAW the same way you claim IAW dismisses it’s opposition.

    If Israel was a true democracy, right of return would be allowed, since under democracy, ALL people are allowed the same rights and freedoms. Instead, any diasporic Jew is not only encouraged, but given financial incentives to make aliyah. Meanwhile, Palestinians living within the region are forbidden from crossing the electrified walls surrounding the occupied territories for months at a time. These differentiated rights are justified by the legal claim that they aren’t citizens. What justifies that claim? Why was no one living in the occupied territories quoted for this article? Surely ‘critical’ conversations can’t happen if your only hearing from one side of the conflict.

  2. Seekeroftruth | April 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm |

    I’m sorry but the last comment just feeds in to the lame old rhetoric without any historical context. Firstly the Arab states dismissed the partition plan and launched a war of annihilation on the young Jewish state. And yes many atrocities were committed on both sides, but Israel to ask the Arab citizens to remain and become full citizens of Israel. Now historical fact again shows Arab leaders encouraged the Arabs leave as not be caught in the War of annihilation, thus they can return when Israel was no more. Israel remained and the Arabs became refugees, rejecting the partition and fleeing their homes during the war. Yet no mention of the million or so Jewish refugees that were expelled or fled Arab lands, indeed Israel accepted them and gave them citizenship, while Arab states did no offer the same to the Palestinians. Yet the Arab states all have laws discriminating against Palestinians yet no such uproar at them, no AAW? Now let’s touch on the right to return, it just would not work and would mean the end of Israel, the demographics and Israel’s democracy would mean it would lose its character as a Jewish state, and of this is a problem, then I suggest you also protest at Pakistan existence as a Muslim state. Also given the fact that there is no occupation in Gaza, Israel left for the cause of peace and their reward rockets raining down on their civilians, and the vile and hateful propaganda pumped on to Palestinian Tv indoctrinating children to fight and die is vile. But again you negate that those Arabs who remained an accepted citizenship are involved in all facets of Israeli society. Now the security barrier is it ideal, no, but why was it erected? How many suicide bombings before the barrier and how many after? And months at a time, I have friends who work on the other side of the barrier and make the journey every day, hardly months at a time. And finally what justifies the claim that they are not citizens, the fact the reject the citizenship of the state of Israel. As the writer has stated they want balanced debate, yet your reply has been a one sided biased, historically inaccurate blame fest, putting all blame squarely on Israel, while the article itself asks got a fair hearing and does not apportion blame. This the writers point is perfectly proven.

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