Students for Justice in Palestine groups at universities across the country just wrapped up "Israeli Apartheid Week." Walking on campus, you probably noticed signs along the paths crisscrossing the quads. The signs as well as some media sources called Israel "imperialist" and condemned the country for being "apartheid." These are awfully charged words, but what do they mean? And, more importantly, are they accurate? Finally, what purpose does their use serve in the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations?
"Apartheid" is defined as "an official policy of racial segregation formerly practiced in the Republic of South Africa, involving political, legal, and economic discrimination against nonwhites." By the very definition of the word Israel does not qualify as "apartheid" because of the first three words: "an official policy." A liberal democracy, Israel's law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or religion. Because there is no policy of discrimination or promoting racial segregation, the SJP's claims that "collective rights extend to Jews only" and that "state resources ... are for the exclusive benefit of Jews" are simply untrue. In apartheid South Africa, schools, jobs, churches, and even hospitals were segregated by law. None of that applies in Israel, where not only do Arabs mix with Israelis but also have the opportunities to thrive alongside them. Arabs have served as Israeli ambassadors, cabinet members, high-ranking IDF officials, and Knesset (parliament) members — one was even acting president in 2007. None of this would be possible (or even thinkable) in an actual "apartheid" regime. Using the word to describe the state of Israel might provide for some provocative rhetoric, but it is simply inaccurate and quite honestly detracts from any real arguments made under its metaphorical blanket.
When I studied abroad at Tel Aviv University, my Palestinian suite-mate Ghadeer was just like any of my Israeli friends, frequenting the same bars, taking the same classes, and the main distinction was that she had to cross a border to go to her home in Ramallah and preferred Arabic over Hebrew. Of course there are some areas in Israel that are predominately Israeli or Arab, which is understandable due to cultural barriers and tension, which unfortunately lead to racism. It is not a legal issue, though; it is informal and cultural — just like in the U.S., where we have areas that are predominately one race or the other and where other races, cultures, or even political parties might be discriminated against – though granted, usually not to the degree of discrimination seen in Israel.
However, in Israel, Arabs can openly be gay, women hold esteemed jobs, and anyone can speak out and protest the state's policies. I witnessed "Nakba Day," where Israel allows thousands of people each year to protest the disaster of the country's own establishment in 1948. In Palestine, one is likely to be sent to jail for criticizing the Palestinian Authority in writing. Minorities – or even simply people with views opposing those of the state – have a much better life in Israel than they do in the surrounding Arab countries, as well as in Palestine. The SJP, were it concerned more with accuracy then incendiary rhetoric, should replace "apartheid" state to "liberal, democratic" state, albeit an imperfect one (similar to our own) in a terribly messy situation.
"Imperialism" is "the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies." It is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that Israel faces accusations of imperialism, as it is itself a direct product of British imperialism when it was the British Mandate of Palestine pre-1948. While it is clear that Israel is not an imperialist colony anymore, the real question regards its own imperialistic practices. Israel is clearly not an imperialist country in extending its rule to foreign countries (or, perhaps, soon-to-be-countries, in this case), as it completely disengaged from Gaza in 2005 while the West Bank has its own Palestinian Authority in power. However, Israel does extend its authority to settlements in the West Bank where Israelis live, an issue that is rightly condemned by the U.S. government, while extending some authority to those who are considered citizens of the State of Palestine. Because the two groups live under different governments, of course they are governed differently, but for the Israeli government to further these separations with separate roads and buses for settlers for the sake of security is a risky call worthy of criticism. Whether or not these settlements demonstrate imperialism by Israeli government is certainly less important than whether or not they inhibit the peacemaking process and violate international law. According to the international community, they do, and while Israel's continued settlement building and distinct separation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank is outright questionable, so too are the are the actors of Israeli Apartheid Week.
While I'm not going to pretend that I agree with every action of the Israeli government, Apartheid Week does not protest for co-habitation or demand negotiation – Apartheid Week preaches hate by using charged words as a tactic used to further the agenda of delegitimizing Israel. And comparing the state to South Africa by using the word "apartheid" to exacerbate Israel's treatment of Palestinians is not just a false dichotomy — it's misleading, and it's a lie.