Commentary  Reflections on IAW

The perennial problem with Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) seems to emanate from nomenclature: that is, the usage of the very word apartheid, with this last month’s IAW not escaping the usual criticism. The critics of IAW consistently assert that the Palestinian conflict does not correlate with that of apartheid South Africa, with many going on to say that it denigrates the South African experience and unfairly makes use of inflammatory language where none is necessary. However, as Na’eem Jeenah, a speaker at one of IAW’s events, so eloquently put it, “We black South Africans don’t mind the application of the word apartheid to Israel.” He went on to comment that in many ways, Palestinians under Israeli apartheid are in much worse shape than black South Africans were under white rule.

Let me make one thing clear: the circumstances in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), especially those in Gaza, adhere to the criteria that define apartheid. In May 2009, the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRCSA) released a study stating that Israel conforms to the model of colonialism and apartheid in its dealings with Palestinians. The report demonstrates this by reminding us of the internationally accepted three-pillar classification system that regimented the South African apartheid regime and that today serves as a set of criteria for determining whether a state is an apartheid system. The apartheid South African government itself defined these three pillars (though the definitions given below are from the HSRCSA).

The first pillar prescribes different rights for different races and correlates to Israel’s multitude of discriminatory laws and policies toward ethnic Palestinians. The second pillar concerns the separation of so-called racial groups into different geographical areas and is obviously manifested by “Israel’s ‘grand’ policy to fragment the OPT” while keeping the majority of Palestinians concentrated largely in these impoverished areas. The third pillar of apartheid describes the security and repression matrix of laws. It is fulfilled by “Israel’s invocation of ‘security’ to validate sweeping restrictions on Palestinian freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, association, and movement [to] mask a true, underlying intent to suppress dissent to its system of domination and thereby maintain control over Palestinians as a group.”

But apologists for Israel persist, saying, “The word apartheid is still too inflammatory for any good to come of it.” I can agree that it is hard to accept that an organization or state you support is participating in apartheid. It must, however, be acknowledged.

The truth is that the enemies of IAW’s aims are not Jewish people, Israelis, or even Zionists. Opposition to IAW comes from almost universal ambivalence, miseducation, blind nationalistic zeal, and a flawed ideology that thoroughly blurs the frontiers of religion, ethnicity, and politics.

So let’s educate ourselves by starting with this: various comparisons between Palestine and South Africa have been made by many notable figures. Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, former attorney-general of Israel Michael Ben-Yair, and Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak have all referred to the system in place – or in Barak’s case, the future of the system in place – as apartheid. The government of South Africa referred to settlement-building in East Jerusalem as “reminiscent of apartheid forced removals.”

John Dugard has described the situation in the West Bank as “an apartheid regime…worse than the one that existed in South Africa.” Dugard is a South African international law professor and judge ad hoc at the International Court of Justice; he made the remark while serving as special rapporteur for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Speaking as member of the IAW Montreal committee, I can honestly say that our usage of this term does not seek to alienate Israeli or Jewish students and instead should be viewed as an illumination of the Palestinian plight. I feel as though the unabashed usage of the word apartheid may have the effect of shocking the international community into action. Using “apartheid” means trying to avert the all-too-common historical practice of looking back and wondering, “Why didn’t we act?”

Jewish and Muslim people of all kinds – Arab and Israeli alike – are historically siblings. Although one might choose to oppose the Israeli government, doing so does not mean that one opposes everything Zionist or Israeli. Of course, I recognize that students here – and in fact most supporters of Israel as a concept – do not have a direct hand in the situation. However, their unbridled and misguided support has the effect of sustaining Israel’s racist politics. IAW is first and foremost a vehicle of illumination and should be understood as a learning experience. Indeed, many Jewish students have attended the events so far and have been treated as nothing more than inquiring minds, regardless of affiliation.

I encourage my fellow students and community members to research for themselves the parallels between South African apartheid and Israel, as the many educated speakers during this year’s IAW attempted to do. After examining the situation, you can form your own opinions on the matter, but consider this: if Canada were an apartheid regime, if Japan were, if Egypt were (and I am strongly critical of Egypt’s leadership), it would be imperative on any socially conscious person to vehemently oppose such policies.

Zayaan Schock is a U0 Arts student and a member of the IAW Montreal committee. Write him at