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In light of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), I feel it is important that I explain why we, the organizers of the event, refer to Israel as an apartheid state. Some people misunderstood the concept of Israeli apartheid and accused us of being inflammatory, or considered IAW a hateful event. On the contrary, as racism is a cornerstone of systems of apartheid, we are approaching the topic from a firm anti-racist perspective.
Part of the reason for the confusion about the term “Israeli Apartheid” stems from the popular conception of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is normally characterized as a conflict between two equal parties and in the context of Israel’s being a “Jewish state.” Many people’s reaction to the conflict is to blame both “sides” equally. The Israel-Palestine conflict has taken on the image of an unsolvable conflict which stems from irrational hatred, divorced from any social or material context.
The unfortunate truth is that the Israeli state treats Jewish and Palestinian residents differently and does so purposefully to achieve particular political objectives. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different ways that the Palestinian population is discriminated against, both in the occupied territories, (primarily the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem), and Israel. Part of the purpose of IAW is to educate the population about the reality of this discrimination and help people understand how and why apartheid Israel should be condemned and opposed as the South African system of apartheid was.
What, then, do we use as a definition of “apartheid?” There are two major definitions used in international law: the first, from the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (ICSPCA), states that apartheid refers to the practice of certain “inhumane acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”
The “inhumane acts” mentioned are such practices as restrictions on freedom of movement or the freedom of assembly, or efforts to divide populations along racial lines. The second major definition of apartheid is from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which is similar to the ICSPCA definition.
The occupied territories are currently carved up into multiple isolated enclaves, with massive concrete walls separating Palestinians from Israelis and Palestinians from Palestinians. To travel within their own territory, Palestinians must pass through checkpoints controlled by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This restricts their freedom of movement. There are many examples of the wall slicing through communities, neighbourhoods and university campuses.
Imagine having to stop at a checkpoint, having soldiers pointing guns at you and waiting for hours to (possibly) make it to class on the other side of campus — this is a daily reality for students in the occupied territories and one example of how Israeli policy restricts the right to an education.
On top of this, Israel has built many hundreds of “settlements” within the occupied territories, which are populated by Israeli settlers who enjoy more rights and privileges than the local Palestinian population. The settlers enjoy exclusive access to Israeli-only, well-maintained roads between settlements and into Israel, while the infrastructure within the Palestinian-populated areas of the occupied territories is in a state of complete disaster.
We call Israel an apartheid state because it is one. Like any apartheid regime, it deserves to be opposed and, like with apartheid South Africa, we feel an international campaign that include practices of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the policies of Israel is the most effective way those of us outside of Israel and occupied territories can help.
However, several prominent local and national Jewish organizations, major political parties and sections of the media have attacked IAW and called its organizers “Jew-haters.” Some have even gone so far as to call for a ban on IAW, on the grounds that it is a so-called “hate-fest.” David Matas, senior legal counsel to B’nai Brith Canada, compared Israeli Apartheid Week, (at which, only a month ago, he had agreed to participate in a debate), to the KKK and the Neo-Nazi movement. Despite this ridiculous attack, none of these organizations has even bothered to contact the organizers of IAW in Winnipeg.
If they had, they would have discovered our anti-racist position and our commitment to respectful free speech at all our events, which includes the reading of an anti-racist statement to open our events. As I write this article, there is only one event left in Winnipeg IAW 2010 and, so far, the hatred anticipated by critics has failed to materialize. The anti-apartheid organizers who organized the South African boycott faced many of the same attacks and were accused of inciting racial hatred between whites and blacks in South Africa and around the world.
We may be condemned, we may be defamed and some may try to shut down our events and our voice, but when the wall is nothing more than rubble and Israeli apartheid is just another bad memory, history will absolve us. The movement against Israeli apartheid is a democratic, progressive, anti-racist and growing movement — and that is what is prompting this response. They know the tide is finally turning towards peace and justice.
Brian Latour is a fifth-year civil engineering student at the University of Manitoba and is one of the Israeli Apartheid Week organizers.