Opinion: Politics and (one word in) the English language

Friday, March 18, 2011

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  • Let’s look at what that key word "Apartheid" actually word means.

    Let’s look at what that key word "Apartheid" actually word means.

In his article, “Combating the Apartheid Label, One Word at a Time” Greg Beneteau repeatedly insists that “words matter.” He’s right.  That’s why it is so troubling that Beneteau dismisses the term “Israeli Apartheid” without offering any definition of the word “apartheid.”

Let’s look at what that key word actually word means.  According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), apartheid is the “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any racial group or groups.” This echoes the United Nations’ definition.  While Beneteau says that characterizing Israeli policy in this way is “Unhelpful. Extreme [and] untrue,” at no point does he offer a single, verifiable fact.  Nor does he engage with the evidence that Israel’s critics have offered to justify applying this label to Israel.

All Beneteau says in defence of Israeli policy is that it’s not as horrific as the Rwandan genocide—that he can say nothing better for Israel’s political class is itself revealing.  Beneteau, moreover, seems unaware that genocide is not the only crime punishable under international law.  For example, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, collective punishment constitutes a war crime.  In her analysis of Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, points out that “The very minimum of food that is allowed in, the severe restrictions on electricity and fuel, the inability of Gazans to leave the territory for work or school, and their inability to import needed goods or to export products all mean that Gazans are forced to live at or below subsistence levels.”  In this context, she writes:  “Israel's closure policy constitutes unlawful collective punishment, in violation of international law.”  The Red Cross also characterizes the blockade as illegal collective punishment and notes that because of this policy, “90% of Gaza’s 4000 fishermen are now considered either poor . . . or very poor . . . , up from 50% in 2008.”  Likewise, the International Court of Justice has ruled illegal the wall built by Israel to restrict West Bank residents’ freedom of movement.  And Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, points out that Israel requires “that thousands of people residing in the West Bank possess a kind of permit that is nearly impossible to receive because of Israel’s own unwillingness to issue it; if they do not have the right permit they face the possibility of imprisonment and deportation” and characterizes this as a violation of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.  Abraham Lincoln once said that if slavery is not immoral, nothing is; well, if Israel’s violations of international law do not constitute “systematic oppression,” nothing does.

Meanwhile, Beneteau encourages IAW activists to attend an upcoming talk on the Rwandan atrocities to see “what real...tragedy looks like.”  That’s an appalling, callous statement.  For one example of a very real tragedy endured Palestinians, consider Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1400 Palestinians in just three weeks, including hundreds of civilians, and destroyed universities, hospitals, mosques and a UN building.  Reports on Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-09 by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Justice Richard Goldstone have all noted that Israel committed war crimes during this venture, including the use of white phosphorous and the needless killing of civilians.

What’s also a “real . . . tragedy” is the dispossession of the Arab populations in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The UK paper The Independent notes that, on the West Bank, “300,000 Israelis now live—in 220 settlements which are all internationally illegal—in the richest and most fertile of the Palestinian occupied lands.”  Another feature of this issue is Israel’s demolition of the homes of Palestinians and other Arabs.  In a 2004 report, Amnesty International notes that “For decades Israel has pursued a policy of forced eviction and demolition of homes of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the homes of Israeli Arabs in Israel.  Forced evictions and house demolitions are usually carried out without warning, often at night, and the occupants are given little or no time to leave their homes. Sometimes they are allowed a few minutes or half an hour, too little to salvage their belongings.” One would need to have an unusually narrow interpretation of “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any racial group or groups” to deny that these examples meet the criteria.  That the dispossession and killings of Palestinian, Druze, Bedouin and Christian Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Territories has not taken place at the same rate as the Rwandan tragedy in no way means that they aren’t tragic or less “real” than other peoples’ suffering.

Beneteau worries that Western governments will be disinclined to offer “legitimate” criticism of Israel because of IAW and mocks the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a nonviolent, global campaign designed to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian human rights.  In fact, one of the main reasons a BDS campaign is needed is that the United States, with help from Canada, ensures that Israel can violate international law with impunity.  In other words, if these two states decided to soften their criticism of Israel, it would be hard to notice.  Since government apparatuses have been unwilling to stand up for Palestinian human rights, it’s up to people to do so, particularly those of us who live in countries with governments that help Israel maintain its “systematic...domination.”

Since Beneteau seems to fancy himself a linguistic connoisseur, perhaps it is fitting to describe his critique of IAW using some of the most famous words in English literature, which were written by William Shakespeare in Macbeth:  “full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”

Greg Shupak is a writer, an activist and a PhD student in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies

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  1. Posted by: christine de pizan on Mar 19, 2011 @ 6:22pm

    Greg (Shupak), thank you.

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