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Some Critical Reflections on Israeli Apartheid Week

Apartheid WallWe should not be shortsighted about what we demand and how we define our objectives. The truth of the matter is that since the mid-1970s, the two-state solution has been quite instrumental for the entity of Israel to advance its ideological claims and at the same time violate international laws in the name of “fighting existential threats” and “security”.Apartheid WallMany of the readers are already familiar with Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual series of events held in different cities and campuses around the world. Last year, according to their website, these events were organized in more than 40 cities across the globe. This year’s events, held in early March, have been widely covered by the international news media. I believe that this effort has a lot of potential, and I support it for that reason. The following points are meant to reflect on some aspects that can help make it even better.

While drawing attention to the striking parallels between the Apartheid South Africa and the Zionist State of Israel, the IAW promotes Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) as part of its tactics or strategy. But the specific demands or objectives of this effort, as I argue in this piece, are at best vague and limiting. The framework in which these demands have been formulated limit the scope of this effort. I am not sure if the organizers in various cities and different speakers invited to these events all have a unified understanding of those objectives and their implications. (What does “End the Israeli Apartheid” really mean? What does “End the Occupation” mean?) The following comments are based on their central (or ‘official’) announcements and documents.

Comparing Means and Ends

If the distinction between “tactics” (means) and “objectives” (end) is clear to the readers, the question that may be asked here is that what do we want to achieve by highlighting the Israeli atrocities? Similarly, what do we want to achieve with BDS? Suppose, we make a strong point about the apartheid nature of the Israeli state, and everyone is convinced in North America and the rest of the world… now what? What have we asked for as a solution during the movement? “Peace Process”, “Two States”, “One State”, something else? And, what have we conceded in this process?

Looking at some current documents and online advertisements of this event, it appears that they all are couched in the vocabulary and framework of a two-state solution. The target is only on the Wall in the West Bank (and Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders), or the demand is equal rights for Palestinian citizens within “Israel”, or the return of refugees under UN Resolution 194 (which, by the way, only protects the right of return of the original refugees, not their descendants). For some reason, among many pro-Palestine groups in North America, the two-state solution is seen as the most natural and realistic solution, whereas in reality, it is neither realistic nor sustainable. (See “How Realistic is the Two-State Solution?“)

One finds an apparent contradiction in the IAW message, between the stated objectives and specific demands, where on one hand the IAW in its document “Basis of Unity” (all officially participating organizations are asked to sign on it) denounces the “racist ideology of Zionism” and “Israeli colonialism” and demands in the first point “Ending…occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”. But on the other hand, in the very next point it recognizes the outcome of that colonialism – the entity of Israel – with the demand of “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”. Isn’t that contradictory? Perhaps not to those who subscribe to a two-state solution? (Consider also the truncation of their first demand with the simple slogan “End the Occupation” in the official 2010 trailer. What does this slogan mean in view of the second demand? A two-state solution?) I find the “Basis of Unity” quite limiting, if not contradictory, and I wonder if it really represents the wishes of all those that participate in these efforts and, more important, those that belong to Palestine.

My concern is that these narrow objectives are not only limiting but also self-defeatist, because, among other things, they legitimize the apartheid entity’s ideology and existence in the process. Even if we win the demands or end-goals stipulated by the Israeli Apartheid Week, what would we have really gained? A reinforcement of the same apartheid state?

Thinking Strategically

A question that may come to mind: “What about strategy then; we can’t get everything from the very first day; even our own people are not ready to go this far?” Sure, we can be strategic and the strategy may very well involve gradual steps, but it shouldn’t be counter-productive to the overall cause. It shouldn’t be contradictory to our principles. I think that the Oslo Accord has a lot of lessons to offer in this regard.

Let’s also consider the implications of UN Resolution 194. I believe that this resolution won’t take us too far if we confine ourselves within the framework of a two-state-solution. Because today probably only a few hundred thousands of those originally expelled are still alive. Yes, it may be a diplomatic achievement if Israel even allows those people to return. (However, at what cost to the Palestine cause? That has to be taken into consideration too.) But that achievement won’t in itself resolve the problem of millions of people of Palestinian origin who are still living like second class citizens in several Arab countries.

What if as part of the negotiation over UN Resolution 194, Israel demands that the rest of Palestinians can no longer have any moral right or claim over Palestine anymore? Would that be a just solution? Would that be a true end of the Israeli Apartheid? Or, its reinforcement and legitimization? But this is exactly the kind of concession that would be expected if we make our demands within the available two-state-solution framework(s). Again, the Oslo Accord provides ample illustrations as to how something like this can really happen. What did the Palestinians really gain from giving so many concessions to Israel (which some may have sincerely thought of as ‘small steps’ or ‘starting point’ of their strategy) and in that process surrendering their moral claim and rights? Even if it is just for the sake of media and public campaign, we need to ask, what would we really gain by pressurizing Israel for those limited demands?

Wars won on the battlefield can be lost on the negotiation table. My concern is that we shouldn’t let this happen to our struggles. This is not to question the sincerity of those involved in the IAW. But we should not be shortsighted about what we demand and how we define our objectives. The truth of the matter is that since the mid-1970s, the two-state solution has been quite instrumental for the entity of Israel to advance its ideological claims and at the same time violate international laws in the name of “fighting existential threats” and “security”. It is actually in Israel’s interest to keep the idea of this kind of solution alive in the international discourse because it gives Israel legitimacy, even when Israel itself is not sincere toward this solution. One can see this instrumental emphasis on the two-state solution in a recent Reut Institute’s analysis (the institute is quite influential in Israel), which simultaneously calls for “sabotage” and “attack” on global justice movements that may be working toward de-legitimizing the Zionist Apartheid state.

Hence, it is not even strategically prudent to define the IAW objectives within the limiting framework of a two-state solution. In practical terms, the movement may want to keep its message very generalized (to appeal to a wide range of pro-Palestine/Justice groups with varying ideological orientations). It can just focus on educating people about political Zionism, and in the process, de-legitimizing this ideological project, without limiting the scope of this effort by recognizing the state of Israel in its demands. By keeping the objectives on that generalized level, it would not need to directly confront the choice between different solutions.

To conclude, I have suggested that the focus of an effort like IAW should be on political Zionism and the apartheid state and system that this ideological project has resulted in over the last 60 years. It should be clear that the purpose here was not to question the tactics necessarily. We can more or less use the same tactics (highlighting Israeli atrocities, BDS, etc.), but they should be framed differently with different demands and objectives. De-legitimizing political Zionism is a worthwhile objective in itself.

Additionally, in more specific terms, if the organizers and those whose cause they are representing can all agree, such efforts may want to target the unconditional American support for Israel – financial, military, and political. They may demand war-crime trials of the Israeli authorities. They may still call for ending occupation and colonization of all Palestinian lands. Finally, they may demand a true dismantlement of the Zionist Apartheid state and call for a just, democratic, multi-national/religious state for all the people of the land. If they cannot go this far, for ideological or strategic reasons, at least such efforts can make sure that their demands are considerate to other major perspectives on this issue and are not counter-productive to the overall cause of justice for Palestine.

For more on this line, see Joseph Massad, “How surrendering Palestinian rights became the language of ‘peace'” (EI, Jan 27, 2010), Gideon Levy, “America, stop sucking up to Israel” (Haartez, Nov 2, 2009), Ben Ehrenreich, “Zionism is the problem” (LA Times, March 15, 2009), Joseph Levine, “History Matters: Why we must acknowledge the claims of the Palestinians” (Boston Review, Sep/Oct 2008), Jonathan Cook, “One State or Two: Neither” (JKCook.Net, March 12, 2008), Edward Said, “The One-State Solution” (NYTimes, January 10, 1999), Gaza Awareness, and Electronic Intifada.

Ali A. is a doctoral student in social sciences. He can be reached at alismails786@gmail.com.

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  • EF

    Ali, I am impressed with your clear discussion on this issue. Thank you for this contribution.