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It Doesn’t Have to Be ‘Apartheid’

By Sam P. N. Libenson, Contributing Opinion Writer

Last week, as part of its annual Israeli Apartheid Week, The Harvard Palestinian Solidarity Committee mounted an artistic display between Thayer Hall and the Science Center Plaza promoting awareness of the immense suffering that Palestinians experience under Israel’s military occupation. Beneath the 12 paintings ran the messages “Free Palestine” and “Boycott, Divest, Sanction,” prompting the resurgence of a heated conversation about Zionism and antisemitism on college campuses.

Although the IAW display is no longer up, the same broadly-sweeping, aggressive talking points that characterize this conversation still echo around campus. Pro-Palestinian activists construct Israel as a malicious villain whose sole mission is to keep Palestinians in squalor, pulling out politically-loaded words like “genocide” and “Apartheid” from their inventory. Those quick to rush to Israel’s defense proclaim it as “the only true democracy in the Middle East” and immediately resort to disparaging the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the condescending subtext of which regards the Palestinian people as unfit to govern themselves.

Yet it is not only the extremes that continue, year after year, to use the same talking points well after their potential to prompt productive dialogue has been exhausted. I tire, too, of having to hear the more “moderate” response that one can “criticize the Israeli government without rejecting the state itself.” Beyond carelessly disregarding the not-so-clear distinction between a state — especially one that purports to be a democracy — and its government, the issues in Israel run far deeper than the government that presently happens to be in power.

The recent history of the modern state of Israel has, irrespective of its government, been inextricably linked with the oppression of the Palestinian people. Though this is not necessarily inherent to the abstract notion of the state itself, such subjugation has characterized the Israeli state in reality. Since 1967, the West Bank has been under military occupation, a legal status that grants Israel functional control over the area while circumventing the obligation to grant Palestinians Israeli citizenship and the rights and privileges this designation would afford. After 50-plus years, I question whether “occupation,” a word which suggests transience, is even apt.

Accordingly, I don’t find it unreasonable that activists — or anyone concerned with justice, for that matter — would be morally outraged by the situation in Palestine. And I certainly don’t find it unreasonable to direct that outrage at something more fundamental than “the Israeli government.”

But our language matters — both out of respect for all parties involved and for the credibility of the person or organization expressing a political message. The way we go about discussing sensitive political topics, no matter the emotional fire they may stir up, therefore deserves careful scrutiny.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee’s display in the Yard says, “Zionism is racism, settler colonialism, white supremacy, and apartheid.” Putting aside the fact that “Zionism” is such a poorly-defined term that I’m not sure I really know what it even refers to anymore, it is these last two accusations that bother me most.

To accuse Israel of white supremacy is to ignore over half of the Israeli population of Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and mixed Jews for whom “white” remains a mischaracterization. It also ignores the fact that, until recently, whiteness was a category that all Jews were decidedly excluded from. I am Jewish, and given the shifting nature of whiteness, I acknowledge that I am also white, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me at all uncomfortable for accusations of white supremacy to be levied at Jews both alike and unalike me, whose shared history as victims of genocidal white supremacy remains fresh in our collective memory.

To accuse Israel of “Apartheid” in a colloquial sense — although recognizing that the term does have a technical definition under international law — is really to accuse Israel of perpetrating the same injustices of Apartheid South Africa. I understand that calling Israel an Apartheid state is meant to use the unambiguous injustice of South Africa as a frame of reference to convince people of egregious Israeli injustices and is not meant to posit a precise, one-to-one correspondence between Israel and South Africa. But Apartheid South Africa was a state where miscegenation was illegal and the law, which was directly derived from eugenics, regarded people of color as inferior explicitly and exclusively by virtue of their race. No law in Israel prohibits sex across racial lines, and though terrible discrimination absolutely exists in the state, it is not founded in racist notions of biological superiority. These are, I think, crucial distinctions to be made, lest we view Israel through a lens that incorrectly asseses the country’s history, making concepts associated with Apartheid seem more applicable than they really are.

Emotionally charged and inflammatory language like this succeeds in, justifiably, elevating the perceptual stakes of the issue at hand, but it conceals something important along the way: Something doesn’t have to be white supremacy or Apartheid for it to be bad. And what is happening in Israel, what has been happening in Israel for over 50 years, is really, really bad. Using phrases like “white supremacy” and “Apartheid,” however, cheapen the semantic weight these words legitimately hold and unfortunately misrepresent the unique complexities and conditions of today’s conflict.

Aside from sacrificing honesty for the sake of provocation, these words alienate students who, like me, are genuinely upset about and disillusioned by Israel’s decades-long disenfranchisement, displacement, and oppression of the Palestinian people. I hate to get caught up in semantics, but with conversations that hit close to home, the words we use really do matter.

Sam P. N. Libenson ’25 lives in Weld Hall.

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