The Conspiracy

The Problems with Israeli Apartheid Week

It’s not often that I take to the New Voices blog to disagree with one of our writers, but I’d like to respond to Sam Melamed’s post from earlier today.

Sam defends Israeli Apartheid Week as an effort “to louden international calls for the BDS movement – that is, the boycott of Israeli goods, the divestment from the Israeli economy, and the placement of sanctions on Israeli imports,” and calls it “Two Weeks of Bashing Bibi and His Cronies in Israel’s Military-Security Complex, But NOT Jews In General, While Also Shedding Light on Legitimate Palestinian Grievances.”

He continues that Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will not fan the flames of anti-Semitism and says that “to call Israel an Apartheid state is not without provocation.” He adds that we should not be “so quick to dismiss Israeli Apartheid Week as Anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist.”

The fact is that Sam is wrong in his characterization of both IAW, as well as of Israel as an apartheid state. Sam writes that IAW is not anti-Zionist, but IAW’s website states that “Prominent Palestinians, Jewish anti-Zionists, and South Africans have been at the forefront of this struggle [emphasis mine].” In addition, the IAW logo illustrates the land of Israel/Palestine in completely Palestinian colors, flanked by two Palestinians. In its own words, IAW is anti-Zionist.

Sam says that IAW is a week of activism against “Bibi and His Cronies in Israel’s Military-Security Complex,” but IAW is in its sixth year. Six years ago Bibi was an exile in his own party. Since then a center left government ran Israel for about three years while Bib led the opposition. IAW took place each of those years.

Sam implicitly supports IAW’s advocacy of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement by supporting IAW, but at present Sam is living in Israel, contributing to its economy and enjoying its services.

Furthermore, Sam writes that in many ways, Israel is an apartheid state–and cites his extensive study of South Africa’s history in support of that claim. I have not studied South African history, but I do know that Israel does not have an apartheid policy specifically because “apartheid” was a policy unique to South Africa’s government and society. The word comes from South Africa and was the technical name for a set of racist laws. Call Israel racist, discriminatory, prejudiced, whatever, but don’t call it an apartheid state, because the only possible apartheid state–ever–was South Africa pre-1994.

Sam writes that we should get past IAW’s name and look at the policies it advocates. First of all, we cannot dismiss the name: the movement’s founders chose it and it is the first and most prominent thing that outsiders see, as well as the way organizers have chosen to identify themselves. If they want to talk about apartheid, we should talk about it. Moreover, the policies the week advocates are entirely counterproductive to the peace movement. If we want to create real peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, we need to stop blaming one side or the other and focus on ways we can collaborate. Stripping Israel of its economic growth and demonizing it internationally does none of this.

Finally, IAW does fan flames of anti-Semitism. Sam is right that there are anti-Semites who will hate Jews no matter what, but giving those “crazies” a voice in an international forum and aligning them with a group that Sam calls “intelligent, rational people” does indeed increase anti-Semitism.

I do not support Netanyahu’s policies and I am wholeheartedly against the occupation. I believe that Israelis’ and Palestinians’ top priorities need to be reconciliation, justice and peace with each other, and that a real effort toward that end needs to start as soon as possible. IAW, however, works against that end, and calling Israel an apartheid state is at best inaccurate and at worst dangerous to the lives of millions of people, both Israeli and Palestinian.

I welcome Sam’s response to this post.

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17 Older Responses to “The Problems with Israeli Apartheid Week”

  1. enav
    March 2, 2010 at 12:50 am #

    hi ben:

    i think the following line in your post is telling: ” I have not studied South African history, but I do know that Israel does not have an apartheid policy specifically because “apartheid” was a policy unique to South Africa’s government and society. The word comes from South Africa and was the technical name for a set of racist laws. Call Israel racist, discriminatory, prejudiced, whatever, but don’t call it an apartheid state, because the only possible apartheid state–ever–was South Africa pre-1994.”

    (1) The ‘crime of Apartheid’ is codified in international law under the International Convention for the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime Apartheid (ICSPCA), which came into force in 1976. As such, it has universal jurisdiction. Furthermore, the ‘crime of apartheid’ is also found in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was created 10 years following the fall of the racist white regime in South Africa; thus the claim that ‘apartheid’ only applies to South Africa is false. Furthermore, it is worth noting that (a) Israel itself refused to ratify the ICSPCA as did other settler-colonial states (like Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, which engage in similar policies of ghettoization and segregation aimed at indigenous peoples); (b) racist leaders of the South African apartheid regime, including Henrik Verwoerd, the ‘architect of apartheid,’ identified Israel as an apartheid state; (c) many prominent South African fighters for social justice active in the anti-apartheid struggle have also drawn the comparison (many remember Israel’s support for apartheid-era South Africa); (d) many Israeli leaders, including Olmert, Barak, Shulamit Aloni, etc. have in one way or another pointed to the validity of the claims made by the organizers of IAW.

    (2) For those who haven’t read it, Uri Davis’ “Apartheid Israel” is a classic outlining the comparison…

    (3) Given that over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations have put forward the call for BDS and that IAW is increasingly being organized in the Palestinian territories; the aims of the campaign are clear. The goal is to ensure that Israel respects Palestinian human rights – within Israel, in the occupied territories and the rights of Palestinian refugees – consistent with fundamental precepts of international law. It’s not clear how a campaign that demands that the fundamental rights of Palestinians be respected can be “dangerous to the lives of millions of people, both Israeli and Palestinian.”

  2. Rivka
    March 2, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    Bravo to Ben Sales for writing such an intelligent response to Sam Melamed’s post.

    I find it hilarious that Sam Melamed is taking part in a Masa Israel program that is supported by the Israeli Government and the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is a complete hypocrite–a lot of talk and action that completely contradicts his sentiments. But wait–he is a self-proclaimed “scholar” of South African history. So, I assume he studied abroad with a bunch of other Americans there, took a few courses, and perhaps even had a few really meaningful conversations with South Africans.

  3. Jennifer82
    March 2, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    The new anti semitism=holding jews to the same standards they have long promoted in white western nations. What goes around comes around.

  4. Jennifer82
    March 2, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    I hope in the not so distant future, the very idea of a jewish state is declared evil, racist and backwards. This is what you people deserve. It is you people who kvetch the most about retaining a white european majority in America and even in European nations.

  5. Rivka
    March 2, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    Wait one more question for Sam – Sam did you take the automatic grant of $3,000 that Masa Israel provides for Career Israel participants? Or did you take it only to donate it to your Gazan brothers?

  6. invisible_hand
    March 3, 2010 at 9:04 am #

    @rivka – i think ad hominem attacks are inappropriate for this discussion.

    responding to the main post, i think restricting “apartheid” to one context, i.e. south africa during apartheid, carries the same problems that groups like the ADL have with expanding genocide beyond the Holocaust. ADL is militantly against calling the armenian genocide a genocide, partially due to its need to have that label remain strongly tied to the Holocaust and little else.
    we need to expand these categories beyond their historical occurrences if we are to learn from these events and make sure things like it do not happen again.
    i understand the strong emotional reactions to calling israel an apartheid state. it hurts real bad. this is the main reason that i think it’s unproductive to use “apartheid” language in reference to israel. but, to use your own language, ben, i think it’s people like you who need to “Stop Crying,” distance yourselves analytically and rationally, and look at the comparison based on content, not affective reaction.
    in the end, i would not support the use of “apartheid” language but for pragmatic reasons, since i think the jewish community is too sensitive and historically-traumatized to treat it productively. however, beyond all the rhetoric, the category may not be exactly applicable (that’s the problem with all comparisons), but it does share some important common ground. in both cases there is an ethnic group of people who are disenfranchised and subject to second-class status. in fact, one could argue the situation in israel/palestine is worse, given the violence of the recent gaza wars and other military actions in which civilians have been killed in such large numbers. (of course, to be fair, the violent actions of extremists in the persecuted group also is unique to the israel/palestine situation).

  7. invisible_hand
    March 3, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    also, i think enav makes a good point.
    palestinian groups have called for BDS and support for IAW.
    many people criticize the palestinians for not protesting non-violently against israel.
    besides the obvious falsehood and ignorance that point of view propounds, BDS and IAW are non-violent means of protest, whether you agree with them or not.
    and yet, when such non-violent protests are enacted, they are labeled as extreme.
    often, i think that the jewish community is unable to take serious criticism of israel, as we cannot face up to the real extent of the harm that has been caused.

  8. Ben Sales
    March 3, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    I’m glad to see that this post and Sam’s have generated some discussion and I hope it continues.

    Enav, I’ll yield to your first point that the definition of apartheid has indeed expanded beyond South Africa. I didn’t know that and that does change the debate. That said, you didn’t touch on whether or not Israel is guilty of apartheid according to the UN’s definition. All you wrote was that “apartheid” is punishable by international law, and that several leaders in South Africa have indicted Israel as an apartheid state. Show me the concrete evidence in terms of what Israel has done in violation of those laws. Saying that one person accused a second person of something does not make the second person guilty.

    Invisible Hand, you’re setting up a series of straw men, responding to arguments I did not make. Restricting the term “apartheid” to South Africa is not like restricting the term “genocide” to the Holocaust, but rather like restricting the term “holocaust” to the Holocaust. The correct analogy would be to restrict the term “discrimination” or “racism” to South Africa, which I specifically do not advocate. In other words, I see “apartheid” as a term particular to South Africa–as I wrote–while the term “genocide” is not particular to the Holocaust and has been used in a number of other contexts. My argument is in no way similar to the ADL’s, which I abhor.

    You also write that I need to “stop crying” and distance myself emotionally, and that the use of the term “apartheid” “hurts real bad.” If you read my post, mine is not an emotional reaction to the term but a technical one: I just don’t think it applies. If you want to argue that, then show me how it does, but don’t dismiss my argument as emotional. Furthermore, you write that we need to look at content, which is exactly what I do: I argue (briefly) that BDS is counterproductive to both Israel and Palestine because it antagonizes Israel and stifles its economy, on which the Palestinians are dependent. Furthermore, we need to move away from antagonism and toward collaboration.

    I also never discussed in this post whether the treatment of Palestinians is better or worse than the treatment of blacks in South Africa. Frankly, I don’t think it matters. You know very well that I am all for peace and justice for both peoples, and I don’t think that comparing oppressed peoples on some unifying scale is at all productive. No matter if they’re better or worse off, they still shouldn’t be treated this way.

    Finally, to respond both to Invisible Hand and Inav, I wholeheartedly support (and recognize) Palestinian nonviolent efforts, but that doesn’t mean I need to support IAW. IAW’s materials are clearly anti-Zionist (in addition to the evidence I cite in the post, IAW talks about “Israel as an apartheid system” as if that characterizes the entire state) and nowhere on the group’s site is there talk of reconciliation or collaboration, but just of Israeli injustice. I do not support efforts that perpetuate this age-old blame-game, and I do think that fomenting such antagonism is indeed dangerous to the people of the region.

    Keep the comments coming!

  9. Uri
    March 3, 2010 at 2:57 pm #


    enav referenced uri davis’ book in support of her claim that israel is an apartheid state according to international principles. davis also updated the book a few years ago, 2002 i think. for a much shorter analysis, see this document that i compiled in 2002, comparing a summary of israel’s record from human rights organizations with the provisions of the convention:

    i agree with you that IAW is anti-zionist. eliminating apartheid in israel practically eliminates israel. that is, israel is so anti-democratic that racial equality would transform it into something so different, it would scarcely be recognized at israel. for one, the elimination of apartheid would permit palestinian refugees to return and to be granted citizenship, not to mention the right to sue for restitution of their stolen and destroyed property. so IAW is anti-zionist, and that’s a good thing.

  10. Wendy Leibowitz
    March 3, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

    Calling Israel an apartheid state is intended to get attention and inflame passions on both sides. It does. It doesn’t inform anyone about the real situation in Israel and the West Bank, and it certainly doesn’t help the Palestinians, whose economy is intertwined with Israel’s. (Who builds the settlements?) It is also inaccurate, just as calling the US in our horribly segregated past an “apartheid country” would be inaccurate. The term feeds ignorance and is distracting. As such, it is typical of much pro-Palestinian advocacy, especially on university campuses.
    The facts help Israel, and will help peace. Action, joint action among all the people of the region, such as Israeli-Palestinian businesses and regional environmental cnocerns, would also help.
    Israel Apartheid Week is for idiots. The participants are not even useful idiots–they’re not helping the people (Palestinians) that I guess they’re trying to help. Sad or funny, depending on your mood.

    “Israeli, Palestinian Business Leaders Urge Free Trade Agreement” :
    Israeli-Palestinian Business Forum:
    And, just for fun: Jewish-Muslim Hip-Hop Sulha:

  11. Gary Hess
    March 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm #

    to all the people voicing opinions against the Settlements and the occupation – did you ever go to the Western Wall? if so, and especially if you continue to, you are a complete hypocrite!
    ever take Road #1 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv or travel to or from the northern Dead Sea area – guess what – more hypocrisy! been to Hebrew Univeristy by way of land – hypocrite! of course Road #443 – crazed hypocrite!

    either stop taking advantage of the “occupation” or shut your mouths! Those living in the “Settlements” over the lines established in the Independence War are fine and heroic Jewish People and deserve respect and admiration, and certainly not your hypocritical derision!

  12. invisible_hand
    March 4, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

    hey wendy – i helped to start hip hop sulha when i interned for modular moods records when i was a student at columbia/JTS.

    i agree with most of the pragmatic arguments against using the term “apartheid” in discourse surrounding israel/palestine. however, i stress that those interested in understanding the situation on the ground try to peer past the lattices of intense emotion that the term stirs up.
    i understand and can relate to the feelings of anger and shame that having that term lobbed at us provokes. i really do. i am as “out-of-the-closet” jew as you can imagine. i wear a kippah all the time. i wear my tzitzis out. i have been the target of honest-to-G?d anti-semitism. i was the only “out” jew in my ghetto public high school (though that was a very positive experience).

    but i really do feel like a lot of the shrinking back from the term is due to a lack of stern-nerves to face up to the drastic situation in israel/palestine. i recently returned from a year of living and studying in (west) jerusalem, but i made sure to travel to east J and the west bank (but not to gaza, since there was a war on when i was there). to put it simply, the situation there is untenable. for us as Jews to allow it to continue is inexcusable.
    here is why the term is not out of left field – in the territories, there currently exists a population which has no voting rights to change its own situation (that is a big reason we fought the american revolution) and often no civil control. they are not even second class citizens. this is striking at the heart of the israeli democratic project.
    if you are ever in israel, you should 100% go on ENCOUNTER, a program that brings jewish diasporic leaders across the green line to see the situation on the ground and meet real palestinians.

    wendy – i agree with you entirely that economic ventures will be a major key to peace. it is a big reason i helped to found the sulha. calling for joint action is definitely a right step.
    however, the need for joint-action does not retroactively make the situation equal. israel has a vast imbalance of power, be it military, economic, or political. in the immortal words of spider-man’s uncle ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” israel bears the brunt of the responsibility to move forward for peace.

    again, i repeat: IAW is an unproductive program, since it will never work to bring people to the table for a productive discussion/dialogue. but we, as courageous jewish leaders, need to face up to the drastic facts on the ground and work from that as our starting point.

    lastly, Gary Hess: i find your comments inflammatory and unproductive.
    i would argue that it does not matter what your political position is, if you are taking advantage of the occupation, then you are causing harm. it is not about me, or you, or anyone and their beliefs. it is about the real people on the ground who are being hurt by israeli occupational policy.
    on that note, i would remind people that all major israeli vintners have vineyards in the west bank (and/or the golan, though that is a trickier situation and policy issue).
    in the end, i do agree with you, gary, in a sense. i heartily encourage jews who visit israel to do their best to avoid giving business to companies and businesses that support and/or benefit from the occupation. there are blurry lines, since all israeli businesses pay taxes to the israeli government, which supports occupation, etc. this presents us with a challenging ethical calculation, which i encourage you to take on yourselves.

  13. invisible_hand
    March 4, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    (sorry for such long responses!)

    ben – i was not calling your response emotional. rather, i meant that your displacing and avoiding engaging with the content of the term “apartheid”, to my mind, signified your resistance to facing up the extent of israel’s occupational actions.

  14. Gary Hess
    March 5, 2010 at 12:26 am #

    to “invisible hand”,

    The fact is that there is no “West Bank”, its all one entity to be controlled by and settled by the Jewish People. All of our history and heritage are in these places. Places like the Old City of Jerusalem, Hebron, Shechem, Sussiya, and Shilo are the heartland of Judaism, much more so than eilat, tel aviv, and w. jerusalem. And they all happen to be in the land that we weren’t able to hold in 1948. But, thank G-d, we were able to liberate them all in 1967 and many Jews have been fortunate enough to live in and cultivate these places and others have had the pleasure to visit them – like the Western Wall! (and we all have the ability to support them today, simply by drinking Israeli wines and supporting these Jewish “settlers” in every way that we can – they deserve our support and we should be grateful to be able to give it!)

    And you want me to sacrifice this tremendous accomplishment because our enemies who sought to destroy us aren’t fully happy with the current situation. hope you enjoyed your year in Israel, for the rest of us who will spending the rest of our lives there and those of our children, how bout you keep your wussy, self-righteous views to yourself! why not spend your time trying to save the Conservative movement, their future seems quite untenable!

  15. Jared
    March 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    Ben, Wendy, Invisible Hand guy, I really like your thinking. I whole heartedly agree that the IAW and the BDS campaign is harmful to the public peace process and just creates a larger rift between the “opposing” communities. What do you guys think of JStreet’s “Invest, Don’t Divest” campaign? In summary, its a campaign to support investment in the Palestinian economy (via micro-finance) and Arab-Israeli relations groups, rather than boycott Israel. I personally love it because in essence, its saying “don’t shut out one side, include both.”

    I am currently studying in Cairo and will soon be touring Israel and the West Bank to explore the country and conflict on an intimate level. I am sick of piecing together news articles and applying it to my amorphous view of the conflict. I would classify myself as against the occupation and settlements, however I would be selling myself short if I did not take them time to live in and explore all aspects of the conflict, including the groups I consider harmful the peace process. If I am to balance my trip well, it would not be splitting my time between the oppressed Palestinians in Hebron and the secular Israeli public in Tel Aviv. It would be between the Palestinians and the settlers in Ariel. I plan to do this (in addiction to Tel Aviv, Bil’in, and everything else I can visit from the Shebaa Farms to Eilat).

    So thank you and I will check out Encounter. If you have any other contacts or suggestions, please let me know. Also, If you know anyone I can home-stay with, religious or secular, Israeli or Palestinian, please let me know.


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