BOSTON — Hear the word “apartheid” and many think "South Africa." But supporters of a movement spreading across more than 40 cities worldwide say that term applies to the Middle East.
Israeli Apartheid Week took place last week on college campuses from Boston to Amsterdam to Melbourne to Bethlehem for the sixth year in a row, raising awareness — and heated debates — from both sides of the conflict.
“It’s been one year since the assault on Gaza,” said Boston University Students for Justice in Palestine organizer Ian Chinich. “It’s been a little over four years, since the second assault on Lebanon. I think Israel has proven itself to be a rogue state — a state that has particularly racist policies against millions of people.”
IAW features lectures, film screenings, demonstrations and protests raising support for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and awareness of “Israel’s apartheid policies toward Palestinians,” according to the IAW Web site.
Tel Aviv University junior Michael Dan Vardi said he thinks using the word apartheid to describe the situation in Israel is wrong.
“When you take a word that has so much meaning, and apply it by, basically, not by looking at the situation, but by looking at what you want to achieve by using the word, it’s not used to describe a situation, it’s used to raise emotion,” he said. “I think using a word like apartheid that has so much history, so much emotional baggage, it does injustice to the people that suffered during that period and it shows disrespect and a lack of understanding of history.”
Chinich, who spent last summer in the West Bank as part of the International Solidarity Movement, said he thinks the word apartheid fits Israel’s policy toward Palestinians.
“A lot of South Africans that are involved [in IAW] actually think it’s worse,” he said. “There’s the U.N. definition of apartheid, and what I see in Israel pretty much violates all of it.”
The United Nations defined apartheid at the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid as “inhuman 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.”
South African cleric and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu was quoted during a 1989 visit to Jerusalem saying, “I am a black South African, and if I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.”
Former president Jimmy Carter wrote a book in 2006 titled “Palestine: Peace or Apartheid,” but later issued to the Jewish community an Al Het, which in Hebrew means “for the sin,” apologizing for “any words or deeds” that may have stigmatized Israel.
IAW supporters cite the Israeli West Bank barrier, a wall that will eventually separate Israel from the West Bank. Israel says the wall prevents terrorist attacks; IAW says the checkpoints that inspect cars entering and leaving the West Bank are examples of apartheid in Israel.
Vardi, however, said Israel is “in an impossible situation” when it comes to balancing diplomacy and the safety of its own people.
“It is in Israel’s national interest for there to be a Palestinian state,” he said. “Economically, politically and socially, the whole region would benefit from it. The resources that go into defense are unbelievable here. All those resources in funding that would be free, and Israel will finally be able to start developing and catching up with the rest of the world and its own potential.
“It’s against Israel’s interest to have road blocks, it’s against Israel’s interest to have such a massive army,” Vardi said. “But it’s necessary for the people’s security.”
Vardi acknowledged that his government has its faults and can take extreme measures when it comes to security.
“Sometimes we do take security too seriously, but when you know someone who has died in a suicide bombing, when you’re exposed to the violence we’re exposed to, you want your government to take security seriously,” he said.
From what Chinich saw when he was in the West Bank, he said he doesn’t believe all of Israel’s actions are for security.
“There’s no reason why evicting Palestinians and putting Jewish settlers into their homes is for security,” he said. “If it’s for security, then why are they arresting peaceful protesters?”
Chinich said he watched as Palestinian families were evicted from the neighborhood of Sheikh-Jarrah, outside Jerusalem. Bethlehem University sophomore Rama Mohmad, who has lived her entire life in the West Bank, said many of her friends have experienced these evictions.
“There are a lot of people who were forced out of their homes,” she wrote in an email.
Mohmad said she thinks the word “apartheid” aptly describes Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian territories.
“It's a very hard situation,” she said. “It isolates the Palestinians, and many of them have lost their homes because of it.”
The Israeli government announced last week that it planned to build 1,600 housing units in disputed territory in East Jerusalem, a decision Vice President Joe Biden condemned.
This year was Boston University Students for Justice in Palestine’s first year hosting Israeli Apartheid Week events, which included a lecture by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus Noam Chomsky, who has spoken often against Israel’s actions in the conflict.
In his lecture, Chomsky spoke to about 500 attendees, drawing comparisons between Israel and South Africa, though he admitted that the situation in Israel is “not exactly like the South African apartheid.”
“In some respects it’s not as bad, but in some respects it’s worse,” Chomsky said.
Chomsky called for a change in U.S. foreign policy, claiming that the U.S. was the mafia “don” of the world and controlled the actions of other countries.
“Israel can only go as far as the United States lets it,” he said.
Many attendees voiced their opposition to Chomsky’s message. One woman in the back of the auditorium shouted out: “Why do you lie?”
During the question-and-answer session, some attendees used the time to attack Chomsky, prompting other audience members to respond angrily and loudly.
“Is there a question in there?” Chomsky asked one questioner calmly after she spoke for five minutes against Chomsky’s message before stating a question.
“The main issue with Noam Chomsky is this isn’t his specialty — linguistics is,” BU Students for Israel Co-President Rachelle Rubin said. “I have the utmost respect for him, but the Middle East is not his forte. People tried to ask questions, and he doesn’t answer them.
“Noam Chomsky had no interest in looking at the both sides of the issue,” she said.
Rubin said she was concerned that Chomsky failed to speak in depth about Hamas, the organization running the government in Gaza. In Hamas’ charter, it explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel.
Hamas’ involvement in Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli December 2008 invasion of Gaza that resulted in the death of about 1,400 Palestinians, is under dispute. The Israeli government claims that the Goldstone Report, the report issued by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate violations of international human rights law during Operation Cast Lead, doesn’t properly weigh Hamas’ aggression toward Israel or acknowledge that Hamas officials hid in civilian buildings and shot their rockets from schoolyards.
Vardi said he thinks the actual operation was a justified response to Hamas’ rocket attacks.
“From 2005 up to December 2008, more than 5,000 rockets hit Israel, and that’s not mentioning the five years before,” he said. “I want you to imagine what would happen if 5,000 rockets fell on Washington. What would any other country do in that case?”
Chinich said the magnitude of the operation was unwarranted.
“It can’t possibly be for security for that sort of domination,” he said. “If so, then they didn’t have to use white phosphorus gas in heavily populated areas.”
Chinich said he thinks Israel’s treatment of Gaza before Operation Cast Lead was a human rights law violation.
“They’ve also been starving them out for years,” Chinich said. “They don’t let any cement in. They don’t let people out, regardless of the conditions. It’s not about security. It’s about punishing the Palestinian people of Gaza for electing Hamas.”
If any steps are to be taken toward peace, Rubin said movements such as IAW need to end.
“Weeks like Israel Apartheid Week completely destroy the road to peace,” she said. “It doesn’t include any dialogue, any desire to impart fact. It’s very one-sided and it’s not a one-sided issue. There has to be an examination of both sides.”
Vardi said he also thinks IAW hurts the peace process.
“Like Mock UN, you’re creating 'Mock Middle Eastern Conflicts' all over the world by doing those demonstrations,” he said.
Chinich said awareness of what is actually happening in Israel and the Palestinian territories is necessary for more than just peace to take place.
“This isn’t an issue of Jews vs. Arabs,” he said. “It’s an issue about justice.”