Posted by on April 05, 2012 in Blog

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “Can We Say Apartheid?” making the case for the accuracy of the term in describing Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. But some of those who acknowledge the technical legitimacy of the apartheid analogy have disputed the utility of invoking it, thus giving rise to the follow-up question of whether or not we should be using the term.

While Jeffery Goldberg was interviewing the former United States Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, he asked him: “Do you believe that in the West Bank right now, apartheid-like conditions prevail?” Mitchell answered like this:

The issue and conflict is complex enough without the use of inflammatory words and phrases whose only result, I won't say intention in every case, is to create aggravation and hostility. If you can say something two ways, and one way is bound to antagonize your opponent, and the other way can get your point across without antagonizing your opponent, why do you choose the inflammatory way if you really do want to accommodate their concerns and reach an agreement?

Here, Mitchell appears to acknowledge that the West Bank is under apartheid-like conditions, but wants to steer clear of using the term because it is “inflammatory,” and is said to aggravate rather than help resolve the conflict.

In a recent article, Hussein Ibish , Senior Research Fellow at the American Taskforce on Palestine (ATFP) took a similar position to Mitchell’s, describing “apartheid” as a “conversation stopper” in the United States. Because Americans do not know what life under occupation is like for Palestinians, he argues, when hearing the charge of apartheid they will “simply assume that they are being exposed to hyperbolic anti-Israel propaganda and stop listening before they hear the facts.” He goes on to say:

It is infinitely more powerful to show rather than tell. Rather than leading with an announcement that Israel practices apartheid, it is much more effective to simply describe the realities: Every aspect of daily life in the occupied Palestinian territories for every individual is defined by whether the Israeli government categorizes them as an Israeli settler, and therefore a citizen of the state with all the rights and responsibilities accruing to citizenship, or a Palestinian noncitizen living under occupation. If you simply describe life under occupation, audiences will draw their own parallels between the occupation and apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow laws in the segregationist American south.

While the concerns of Ibish and Mitchell are valid, they are hardly sufficient to compel the abandonment of the apartheid terminology. For starters, it is indeed an inflammatory word, but one which accurately describes an inflammatory and intolerable situation. It would indeed be better to thoroughly describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But in the media world of sound bites, one doesn’t always have the time to get into such details. In response to Israel’s standard claims to “freedom,” “peace,” and “democracy,” Palestinians also need comprehensive keywords that describe their life under Israeli rule, like “occupation” and “apartheid.” If using shorthand for describing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is a “conversation stopper,” we need to work on changing that by making the case for such terms, not abandoning them.

Furthermore, many academic institutions have divested from South Africa during the apartheid era. If “apartheid” becomes the mainstream designation of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, spreading the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign that’s aimed at ending Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine into the American mainstream becomes substantially more likely.

For these reasons, we should be trying to mainstream the term “apartheid” in describing the reality in Palestine; a job half-done for us already by a former American President who wrote a book called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Being more assertive in describing the injustice in Palestine is what will help us bring about the bold steps required to end that injustice.

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