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.