In the hustle of this week, many of us have stopped to examine the wall erected in the Intercultural Center Galleria by Students for Justice in Palestine as an effort to raise awareness of “Israel Apartheid Week.”
As a symbol for the separation barrier that delineates and protects the borders between the West Bank (Palestinian territory) and the democratic, Jewish state of Israel, the wall is meant to increase campus understanding of the long-running territorial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in an impactful way, focusing on the conflict’s issues concerning human rights.
While I appreciate SJP’s desire to ignite campus dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a humanitarian perspective, and I want to assert that using polarizing, sensationalizing “apartheid” language is neither accurate nor constructive, and it does not move us toward developing a safer, more peaceful existence for Israelis and Palestinians.
I recognize that many who use the word apartheid are deeply concerned about the ongoing circumstances in Israel and the Palestinian territory. I, too, am invested in the situation. As an active member of J Street U, a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace organization, my commitment to working toward an end to the occupation stems from an intense dedication to human rights. When it comes to safety and quality of life, every person needs to be treated equally: It is not acceptable to me that Palestinians have limited access to clean water and restrictions on travel within their own territory. Moreover, Israel’s long-term survival is threatened so long as it continues to enact occupational policies on another people. Something needs to change.
But what is happening in the Palestinian territory is not apartheid; it is occupation. For one, Arab Israelis have rights in Israel that would never have been permitted for black South Africans under apartheid. The Israeli parliament allows Arab and anti-Zionist parties to openly run for seats. The Israeli Supreme Court has Arab Justices. Arabic is an official language of Israel. Furthermore, the restrictions of military rule apply only to the Arab citizens living in the occupied Palestinian territories, not within Israel itself — and applying the term “apartheid” here makes no distinction between the two.
To be clear, I do not seek to belittle the hardships of the individuals who live through the effects of military rule every day. By illustrating how Israel is, in fact, not an apartheid state, I mean to argue that reducing the multidimensionality of the conflict to a matter of racial oppression is not an effective way to advocate for change.
We need to remember that the roots of the current occupation lie in territorial conflict that has persisted in the region for, arguably, centuries. It’s a complex situation of two peoples with equally valid claims to the same land.
Israelis have an equal right to live safely in their legitimately recognized democratic state, and Palestinians have a right to exist in their homeland without the restrictions of military rule. For these two ideals to exist simultaneously, we need to end the occupation with a solution derived from fair compromises by both parties. The one-sided, good-versus-evil image created by apartheid rhetoric halts progress toward such a compromise by emboldening extremists on both sides and discouraging the kind of moderate discussion needed to diplomatically handle such a deeply nuanced conflict.
Because of its connotation with South Africa, the term “apartheid” fosters an anger-charged, uncooperative atmosphere in which progressive dialogue becomes impossible, and in obstructing dialogue, we obstruct compromise. And without compromise, we won’t see peace.
We need to instead set the stage for constructive dialogue. We need to educate the campus about the region’s history and about the main components of the arguments on both sides. Both peoples have certain requirements regarding borders, national security, resettlement of refugees and access to Jerusalem that need to be met before they will agree to any kind of long-term compromise.
As a member of J Street U Georgetown, I believe that the best way to reach this compromise is through a two-state solution, and there are critical negotiations going on right now — led by Secretary of State John Kerry — to reach this goal. Instead of raising awareness of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians in a non-constructive manner, we can act to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians in the long term. I invite more students to educate themselves on the conflict and the ongoing negotiations, and to join a growing constituency to support peace through a two-state solution.
KATE HOPKINS is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.