Jaclyn Schiff: Apartheid does not apply

Approximately two weeks ago on Palestinian Land Day, GW became the launch site for a divest-from-Israel campaign. Third-year law student Fadi Kiblawi and Arab-American News columnist Will Youmans announced plans to ask University administrators to discontinue business ties with companies doing business in Israel.

Like many others, I want a pragmatic and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I find divestment to be a strategy that complicates peace and promotes anything but coexistence.

In discussing the Palestinian struggle, Youmans and Kiblawi, who have staged unsuccessful divestment campaigns at other universities, repeatedly compared modern-day Israel to South Africa’s Apartheid regime. They allege that their Palestinian brethren are subject to institutionalized discrimination just as blacks were in pre-1994 South Africa. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this analogy, and as a pro-Israel South African, it was not the first time I was disturbed by it, either.

Thankfully, Israeli divestment campaigns have not succeeded on any campuses in this country. But if these efforts were successful, they would deny everyone in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel valuable capital and resources. Divestment would end up causing harm to those it purports to assist and perpetuate problems rather than solve them.

Divestment’s basic foundation is riddled with red herrings. At the March 30 event, Kiblawi and Youmans acknowledged that their campaign is modeled on the tactics used by campus activists in the late 1980s against Apartheid South Africa.

In my experience, divestment activists often label anything from a fence to a policy as apartheid. As someone who grew up in South Africa, I often wonder how many of those who champion the term apartheid could accurately define its meaning. South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Major General Fumanekile (Fumie) Gqiba, recently told a national newspaper there, “The term ‘apartheid’ is uniquely South African and devalues the struggle of the black population against one of the worst forms of oppression known to man.”

I’d like just one divestment activist to make the comparison between Israel and Apartheid South Africa to a black South African, such as my friend, Maggie Masipha – a women in her 50s who grew up when apartheid policies were most stringent. Tell her about Israel’s racist policies, which allowed for the appointment of Salim Joubran, an Israeli-Arab judge, to its supreme court in 2003. Ask her if she was ever allowed to vote or play a role in South Africa’s judicial process while sitting on the country’s blacks-only bench. Tell her about Palestinians and Arabs who can attend and lecture at any Israeli university, when it was illegal for her to attend any South African college.

I’d be remiss to say that Israel didn’t remind me of my experience in South Africa at all. As I spoke with average Israelis and they talked about their defensive mindset that helps them deal with the constant threat of suicide bombings, I recalled having similar thoughts before venturing out in Johannesburg, one of the most violent cities in the world. Whereas Israelis may think about where to sit in a coffee shop to minimize the possibility they will die in a suicide bombings, South Africans will drive through red lights late at night because stopping would increase the risk of a carjacking. The nature of the violence is different, but the coping mechanisms are extremely similar.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not deny that Palestinians suffer habitual rights violations, and that there is much work that has to be done to improve their situation. But the situation is definitely not the same as the apartheid I knew, and it is unclear to me how divesting from Israel will fix anything.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is the Jewish Student Association’s vice president for Israel affairs.

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