Commentary  The red herring of apartheid

Muddying the waters of debate

WINNIPEG (CUP) — Language can be a strangely powerful tool. A single word may reference a whole range of cultural phenomena and inspire happiness, shock, anger and everything else in between.

This is no secret. All the great orators in history understood the importance of infusing their prose with words that resonate in the human heart as well as mind. Nor is it a lost art. Even today, anyone serious about spreading a message knows that a careful choice of phrasing can make the difference between celebrity and obscurity.

Thus, I have no doubt that such ideas occupied the minds of those who decided on the name “Israeli Apartheid Week,” the annual series of events organized by groups opposed to the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. That’s not to suggest that IAW supporters don’t believe the analogy, but the use of an emotionally – and politically – charged word like “apartheid” was guaranteed to grab headlines, and there’s no way they didn’t see that beforehand.

Tried and true though the technique may be, I’m not comfortable with its use here. In fact, it’s a pretty irresponsible misappropriation of a word better left to the history books. It’s not that the plight of the Palestinians isn’t worthy of attention – they have had a pretty bad run over the past fifty some-odd years, though the issue is hardly one-sided. No, my objection lies more in the red herring that results when throwing such a contentious term into the ring.

Apartheid of course refers, in the narrow historical sense, to the racial policies implemented in South Africa by the Nationalist Party after it came to power in the late 1940s. It was an absolutely despicable chapter of history and the word now rightly conjures up images of racism, intolerance, and authoritarianism. However, in most minds it is still inextricably linked to South Africa, and this is where the problems begin.

IAW’s goal is to raise awareness about alleged human rights abuses occurring in Israel. However, in choosing a name so rife with historical baggage, it inadvertently diverts attention away from the issue at hand and creates a meta-debate about whether the label is correct. This has, in turn, allowed IAW’s opponents to sidestep tougher questions and substitute a much easier one: Does what is occurring in Israel qualify as apartheid, per se?

This is an simple thrust to parry – of course, strictly speaking, the policies are not, and can never be, apartheid, an Afrikaans word for a phenomenon exclusive, in that specific form, to South Africa. And because the term is so closely linked with that nation, the overwhelming majority of people are willing to accept such a conclusion.

In short, by using the word apartheid, IAW allows its opponents to avoid addressing any of their actual concerns.

The same thing occurs whenever people try to attach the term “Holocaust” to genocides other than that of the Jews under Nazi Germany. The allusion to that awful event is never lost, no matter how completely unrelated the referenced circumstances may be, and it inevitably muddies the waters as people try and decide whether the ethnic cleansing of one group measures up to that of another – as though any genocide is better or worse than another.

Whatever the intention of those importing such loaded words into the vernacular, it invariably results in a linguistic debate overshadowing the actual problem at hand.

It’s a shame, because there is a lot in the Israel-Palestine conflict worth debating. I don’t come down strongly on either side, but I absolutely agree that there are some issues raised by IAW well worth addressing. However, IAW’s insistence on the use of an attention-grabbing moniker greatly diminishes the chance of a serious and sober debate.

Instead, we are left with a lot of opinions on apartheid and few on anything relevant to the Palestinian situation, to the great advantage of those who would rather avoid a discussion at all. If those who believe that an injustice is occurring in Israel want to be heard by the world, they would do better to tone down the shock factor and start addressing their concerns head on.

Greg Sacks is a member of the Manitoban at the University of Manitoba.