Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Moving Beyond 'Apartheid'

I'll be honest. I hate Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Not because I disagree with the core message of its proponents but because it brings out the worst imaginable in a so-called public discourse. Indeed, to consider the week a an exercise in discourse is farcical. It's simply a week of two sides talking past one another. Nothing is affirmed and nothing changes. Worse still it is utterly predictable and boring.


There are problems with the term 'apartheid'. While it is an accurate description of the reality of the situation,  the term has historical baggage which makes it unwieldy to apply in new circumstances. Simply put, apartheid is any system that separates people based on a particular characteristic. In the case of Palestine, that trait is ethnicity or race. Historically, such systems are neither new and, indeed, they have appeared frequently in western liberal democracies. For generations the United States was a partial apartheid state - the term was segregation - and voiced the hollow rhetoric of 'separate but equal'.

Canada had its own systemic form of apartheid directed squarely at Aboriginal peoples. Indeed, despite many improvements, that system continues. While First Nations received the unqualified vote in 1960, thus ending differentiated citizenship based on race, segregation still exists in the form of the reserve system. More tellingly, the Indian Act still underwrites this system, treating First Nations as wards of the Crown. Current reality may not be entirely physical - although there is still a large geographic component, particularly for remote reserves - but there is nevertheless a qualitative distinction which divides Indigenous Canada from non-Indigenous Canada.

The problem with the term is not so much its lack of applicability but the the term is now historically laden and, as such, temporally and spatially fixed. Specifically, it has become synonymous with the Black South African experience between 1948 and 1994. In essence, the term has become so inextricably bound with a singular historic experience that the use of the term prior to mass public consciousness - particularly in the 1980s and 1990s - is no longer possible and, as such, it has lost its original meaning outside of those events. The situation is, in many respects, analogous to that of the Holocaust. To use the term outside its near universal fixity to the Jewish experience - to Armenia, Russia or Rwanda, or even to homosexuals or Roma during the same period - is often resisted. Instead genocide or ethic has come into popular usage, holocaust retaining far too singular a meaning to be viable in connection with other experiences.

While on the surface the Palestinian case falls under the rubric of apartheid, there is a very important distinction. Superficially the division is racially driven, but the impetus is not racialized per se. That is, unlike the explicit racial connections of historical examples - Blacks in South Africa and the United States, Aboriginals in Canada (and indeed, Australia or the United States) - the racial factor is not the dominant trope. Palestinians are not segregated because they are a racial minority but for other reasons. As such, the extreme racism underlying previous apartheid regimes - indeed, the sole factor in their creation - is largely absent. This is not to say, of course, that there are no racist feelings on the Israeli side, but rather to acknowledge the important distinction.

There is also another problem with utilizing the term. Generally 'apartheid' is a condition that occurs within a state which internally divides. Israel's apartheid does not divide a whole, rather it separates or excludes the Other. This, in part, helps to explain the rejection of the term by many. Internally the rights of Israeli's non-Jewish minority are fairly secure and so the label is often rejected outright given the relative freedom these groups enjoy. The term, however, is applied not to Israel's own citizens but rather those in the territories it occupies either directly or through military control. Apartheid is somewhat applicable given the precarious status of Palestine existing in a state of exception which is outside the norms of statehood. It is neither autonomous nor externally governed. Additionally, the use of the term stems largely from the visual and metaphorical punch is delivers given a clear tangible symbol of segregation and division: a giant concrete wall. Further complicating the issue is that fact the wall doesn't neatly bisect the two countries, but runs across Palestinian territory, in many instances dividing villages, farms and families from one another. In essence, the wall segregates Palestinian from Palestinian as much as it does from Israelis.

The reality of the Palestinian situation is dire. It is a state of being closely paralleling in many important aspect that of any apartheid state. Yet, as I noted above, the term is somewhat inappropriate, if only as a result of the preexisting understanding of the concept by western publics and their governments. Perhaps it is time for IAW  to find a new descriptor for the state of Israel. The reason for using the term is clear: it's controversial, it draws attention and it is highly polemical. It is designed to incite and provoke. The problem is, however, that while it is all these things, the way mainstream audiences - non-activist audiences audience: the very audience activists need to reach and convince - are often turned off by the rhetoric, something which politicians and media encourage. People automatically think of South Africa and fail to see the parallels. This is a major challenge for organizers. Existing terms - occupation, for instance - are old, as is the plight of the Palestinians, something which has become normalized. This ongoing reality fails to shock or provoke anger. Additionally, other terms which could be deployed are equally loaded and overly generalized. For instance, imperialism, which is often invoked, is again a concept that seems a better fit elsewhere. Finding a term that encapsulates  Palestinian reality - and the extent of Israeli culpability - is a considerable predicament.

As the activist side is predictable, so too is its opposition. Particularly problematic is the unthinking idiocy of the popular press that equates IAW with unbridled antisemitism. The exemplar of this reasoning is Rex Murphy, whose diatribes are worst kind of crass generalizations and malicious slander. Politicians too are equally quick to pander. Indeed, the annual flow of press releases reflexively demonizing IAW and its activists while ignoring what they are actually sayings is pedestrian and beneath that of parliamentarians. See, for instance, Michael Ignatieff's 2010 broadside - fitting, for a defender of imperialist militarism - or the unanimous support for an ignorant motion in the Ontario Legislature. While somewhat refreshing - solely for omitting tired accusations of antisemitism - Bob Rae's statement replicates so much about what is problematic about opposition to the week.

There are several dominant tropes found in these responses that need to be addressed. The first, and most prominent, is the spurious accusation of antisemitism. The major problem, apart from it being false, is that those utilizing the term are ignorant of its meaning. It is used because accusations of racism are most effective at undermining arguments and those that propound them. Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice or hostility directed at Jews, nothing more nothing less. The rhetoric of IAW activists does not fall into these categorizations, simply put, because they do not demonstrate hatred or discriminate against the Jewish people. Rather, the target is the Israeli government, not the population. Activists take issue with policy not people. By comparison, labelling demonstrations against dolphin fishing as anti-Japanese would be rightly scoffed at. Indeed, if Jewish citizens of Israel oppose the actions of their state are they as a result antisemitic? Additionally, being Jewish and being an Israeli are not the same thing. Antagonists of IAW tend to conflate the two which. I reject outright the notion that criticism of Israel is somehow antisemitic.  [For a more in-depth critique of  "The Charge of Antisemitism" see Judith Butler]

The second dominant trope is beyond the pale logically and borrows liberally from the rationale behind the 'ethical oil' campaign to paint the Alberta tar sands as the moral choice for conscientious consumers. The equation states, quite simply:  if A is qualitatively or quantitatively better than B, then A is, all things considered, more 'ethical' than B. In the case of Alberta oil, the fact that the alternative sources of crude are repressive regimes with gross human rights abuses means that Alberta crude - despite its massive environmental impact - is ethical because Canada has a largely positive human rights record. The impact remains the same, however, the object has been mystically transformed. The existence of something deemed worse negates these impacts and absolves wrongdoing.

The rhetoric of anti-IAW sentiment follows a similar pattern. Accordingly, the existence of greater human rights violations elsewhere has two important effects. First, it deflects attention away from Israeli's abuses and they are now, solely by comparison, 'more ethical'. Secondly, it reverses the argument and criticizes activists for ignoring other atrocities. There is no deep denial of the plight of Palestinians, instead it paints activists as the problem. This trope is clearly evident in Liberal leader Bob Rae's statement condemning the week.
“Israeli Apartheid Week continues to defy logic and the cause of social justice. We expect students to engage with issues of injustice, equality and respect for international law, and we encourage respectful dialogue on these topics on university campuses. It is therefore difficult to understand why this year the focus continues to be on Israel, rather than on the appalling massacres and human rights violations that have reached intolerable heights in countries such as Syria and Iran.
In Syria, the Assad regime continues to shell its own people indiscriminately–adding daily to the death toll that has surpassed 8000 victims so far–yet claiming that a majority of citizens exercised their democratic right and approved a new constitution while tanks cruise the streets.
In Iran, the imprisonment and silencing of all opposition in the lead-up to the Iranian election last week involved arrests, beatings, torture, kidnappings and an abhorrent execution binge that took the lives of more than 60 people in January 2012 alone.
Yet the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week chose to ignore these far bloodier atrocities. The failure to stand up for any other oppressed people or injustice undermines the supposed social justice underpinnings of Israeli Apartheid Week. Rather than singling out and demonizing one country, we should be encouraging students to come together and engage in constructive dialogue about peace and democratic reform in a Middle East that is transforming before our eyes."

The statement does not vary substantially from other official reactions to the week. It accuses activists of overlooking other ongoing atrocities using unequivocally harsh and accusatory language. First, the statement is not true and, second, even if it was, it does not matter. The burden placed upon activists, in this case university students, is both uncalled for and disproportionate. Moreover, it is a singularly ignorant reaction. IAW activists do not deny that there are potentially more dire situations across the globe, yet these atrocities should not detract from or minimize Israeli's actions against the Palestinians. In this instance it is actually Rae who "continues to defy logic and the cause of social justice" by minimize the Palestinian struggle by pointing to more immediate realities in Iran and Syria. Somehow scale is the dominant ethical consideration. Do we ignore homophobia in Canada because it is less prevalent than in Uganda? These arguments construct a troubled escalator of atrocities in which the most immediate and those conducted by more hostile, less democratic regimes are more pressing than that actions of friendlier, more liberal states.

Secondly, Rae places an undue burden on these students - and IAW activists in general - by fostering an 'all or nothing' framework. In essence, single-issue advocacy groups must target and speak out against all atrocities, giving each equal weighting. To focus on one, the logic goes, undermines the efficacy and legitimacy of the cause and the movement behind it. Expand the logic of Rae's argument beyond this issue and its inherent superciliously becomes evident. By this reasoning the Canadian Cancer Society 'defies logic' and good health because it fails to acknowledge and address the dire consequences of heart disease and stroke. Rather than narrowly focusing on cancer, that organization must give equal weighting to all diseases and afflictions. Similarly, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty should cease and desist its local operations and instead focus on absolute poverty abroad and not relative poverty at home. Rae's condemnation of IAW 'cherry picking' is beyond absurd.

Finally, Rae decries the singling out of Israel and instead advocates for a "constructive dialogue about peace and democratic reform in a Middle East". No doubt many activists will agree with the sentiment, but its general, vague and far too diffuse an interest. Beyond this there is good reason why it is necessary to
single Israel out: because it receives a free pass by most western states and the media. Silence, as such, necessitates the week, even if the gains are minimal. Indeed, Rae's critique perfectly illustrates why this week is relevant. The reality of daily life for Palestinians - many of whom still live in refugee camps - is so frequently overshadowed by 'greater atrocities': Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea. IAW keeps the issue alive, even if for one fleeting week in March.

Unfortunately the week often disintegrates into a garish display of accusations and insults. What's missing is a genuine discourse where both sides engage in debate. The current model is neither a discourse nor a debate. It is little more two deeply entrenched camps talking past one another. While media and politicians claim to take the high road by denouncing IAW and those who take part, they do little more than obfuscate or deflect uncritically. Additionally, they disparage in the harshest of terms - and without good reason - scores of Canadian citizens exercising their democratic rights to free speech and advocacy. Moreover, their own arguments are base, logically barren and obsessed with how the term 'apartheid' is deployed.

Yes, the rhetoric of IAW is offputting, blunt and not nuanced. Neither is the reality of Israeli occupation. Both sides - proponents and detractors - need to move beyond the narrow lens of 'apartheid' and actually engage in meaningful conversation about the issues at stake - both for Palestine and, indeed, for the viability of free speech and meaningful public discourse in this country.

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