Christa Blackmon and Joe Catron - In the age of the modern nation-state, language cannot be separated from politics. In cases of violent conflict the words we use to justify or condemn often carry traces of that violence. The words in our conflict vocabulary bear the scars of fierce battles over their relationship to reality, their appropriate context, and their legitimacy. In Israel-Palestine, there is perhaps no word more embattled today than “apartheid”.
The month of March marked Israeli Apartheid Week at different times all over the globe. Like an annual re-enactment of a famous war intellectuals and activists return to the battlefield with polished arguments and a steadier aim.
The word “apartheid”, meaning “separateness”, has its origins in the Afrikaaner dialect of South Africa. From the post Second World War period to 1991, it became the official term for a system that actively, and violently, affirmed white European superiority over the native African population and other “non-white” races present in the country.
The “crime of apartheid”, as defined by an international convention in 1973, was built upon the lessons learned from the atrocities of Apartheid South Africa. The crime includes the denial of the right to life and liberty of person, imposing or destroying living conditions, denial of participation in public life, dividing the general population along racial lines, and the exploitation of labor of a member or members of a racial group.
South Africans (both pro and anti-apartheid), Palestinians, and Jewish Israelis during the Apartheid period were quick to see the similarities between the Afrikaaner oppression of blacks and other non-whites and the Israeli annexation and occupation of Palestinian land.
Today, the use of the word apartheid in the context of Israel-Palestine can serve a dual function. One is to draw a direct historical connection and analysis while the other is to more seriously bring forward allegations of a breach in international law as defined by the 1973 convention. The distinction between these two meanings may not always be clear, but the criminal allegation in the use of the word apartheid is an important point for many who choose to employ the word.
Yet many Jewish Israelis, even those who are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians reject many, if not all, of the parallels to Apartheid South Africa and the crime of apartheid. A number of Israel’s allies in the West also shy away from the comparisons and the legal application of the word. That hasn’t stopped individuals and organizations in the West or Israel from doing so, but they are typically pushing against the mainstream.
Palestinians and their Arab allies seem to be nearly in consensus when it comes to labeling Israeli policies as apartheid. Though one may debate whether or not the label is coming from a place of hatred, the shared sense of victimhood cannot be separated from their moral or legal reasoning. The need to have the international community recognize Israeli policies as a crime is incredibly potent.
But is the classification of Israeli policies as a crime of apartheid a distraction? Should motives determine its legitimacy? Or is it simply a hard truth that Israelis may be too afraid to accept?