Towards the end of spring, various student groups at universities worldwide held events for “Israel Apartheid Week.” According to its website, “Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is an international series of events that seeks to raise awareness of Israel’s settler-colonial project and apartheid system over the Palestinian people and build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”
Penn’s own Students for Justice in Palestine held several Israel Apartheid Week events at the end of the year, culminating in the display of an “Apartheid Wall” to criticize the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank. On their Facebook page, SJP advertised for students to “come out to College Green to learn more about the Apartheid Wall.”
But when I attended the event, representatives of SJP immediately refused to speak to me or any member of The Statesman. Eventually, a self-described “ally” of SJP representing the event agreed to answer questions but requested not to be named, described, gendered, or otherwise identified in any way. SJP members were hesitant to speak due to fear of “backlash,” this person explained.
When one hears the phrase “Israeli Apartheid,” one might imagine the brutal and inhumane system of South African government from which the term originated, where black south Africans were legally denied certain rights afforded to whites. SJP clarified that South Africa and the term Apartheid as they are using it have nothing to do with one another. “[Apartheid is] a term from international law. It’s not South Africa. This is not South Africa… South Africa had apartheid, and it manifested differently than in Israel-Palestine.”
SJP was accusing Israel of the “Crime of Apartheid,” defined by international law as “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” The basis for this accusation was that “Israelis and Palestinians live under different sets of laws,” particularly in Area C of the West Bank. Specifically, that Israeli settlers live as citizens but Palestinians live under military occupation, and that the Israeli supreme court does not recognize certain Palestinian-held land deeds issued by the Ottoman Empire or Jordanian government. “Under common law, if you have a deed to land that you’ve purchased however long ago, it is your property. It doesn’t matter who gave you that, who sold you that land.”
I was told: “Apartheid has various manifestations. In the West Bank, it’s absolutely apartheid. In Israel proper, it’s less clear. A lot of it has to do with power systems.” Thus, Israel is guilty of apartheid even when it has no explicit legal discrimination based on race or ethnicity, and when Arab Israelis can and do serve within Israel’s parliament and on its supreme court and are entitled to use the same hospitals and facilities (none of which occurred in the original South African apartheid). “In a power system, you will have exceptions, so that way you can point to that and say ‘look . . . there’s no system of oppression.’”
The person I was talking to cited checkpoints in the West Bank as evidence of apartheid, insisting that these were not security measures: “Checkpoints did not begin because of terrorism; checkpoints began because of increased settlements in the 1980s under the Shamir government. . . . If this was a security issue, they would not be allowing settlers to move in.” As a result, Palestinians currently do not enjoy the same freedom of movement as do Israeli citizens.
Additionally, Palestinian terrorism is entirely the fault of “systematic oppression” that has been “set upon Palestinians since the late 19th century.” During this time, Palestinians “didn’t have the same political coordination as the early Zionists,” who “were coming into a European-controlled area, and they knew the European models.” Additionally, Palestinians “were not given the same privileges . . . by the British.” This was true even though the Ottoman Empire, not the British or any European power, controlled Palestine during the “late 19th century” and until World War I, when the first two waves of Jewish immigration occurred. “I’m talking about before World War I. Before World War I is when you start to see it, but post-World War I is basically the biggest part.”
Zionist Jewish immigration was also to blame for Palestinian violence against centuries-old, non-European Jewish communities in Palestine. For example, the 1929 Hebron Massacre “was largely influenced … by the displacement that was happening because of Zionist immigration, which is not to say that [Zionists] were necessarily wrong to move . . . but rather the way that they were doing that was displacing a lot of people. That’s what created the frustration, along with the fact that there was no political autonomy for Palestinians; the Zionists created a lot of it.”
This person also seemed dismissive of the efforts of some Palestinian leaders to exterminate all Jews during the 20th century, such as the religious and political leader Amin al-Husseini, an ally of Adolf Hitler who tried to establish concentration camps in Palestine for use against the Jews during World War II. “I am aware of that particular figure. I also know that a lot of it is blown out of proportion. The concentration camps were not the idea of him; the concentration camps were the idea of Hitler.” This person further remarked, “You can’t use one person to represent an entire people. Why are you bringing him up? There are bad eggs in every basket,” comparing al-Husseini to current Jews who support Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The representative contested several widespread beliefs related to the Israel-Palestine issue, calling it “a huge myth” that Palestine was not heavily populated prior to Zionist immigration and that Zionist efforts enabled both Jewish and Arab populations to expand. In regard to the Palestinian leadership’s refusing several offers of an independent state by Israel and the United Nations in exchange for recognizing Israel’s right to exist, he/she stated: “It’s a lot more complicated than that.” He/she also disagreed with Israel’s account that it fought the 1967 6-day war (defeating Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) in self-defense: “It’s unclear; the Jordanians weren’t actually going to attack Israel. They have historical documentation showing that. . . . I don’t know that you can call a preemptive attack defensive. I think that the fact that they took land and didn’t give it back, which you’re supposed to do under international law . . . calls into question that it was defensive.” He/she concluded: “Look at history, at historians. Not the AIPAC bullshit, or whatever group you’re looking at.”