Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Richard Cohen says it's not apartheid. He's wrong. Here's why.

In an op-ed in this morning's Washington Post entitled "Israel has its faults, but apartheid isn't one of them", Richard Cohen attacks Israeli Apartheid Week and argues that Israel is not guilty of the crime of apartheid. Cohen's column--which also appears in the New York Daily News--uses many of the same tricks and distractions that critics of Israel's violations of international law have become used to, from dismissing the reality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip (he refers to the West Bank as "more or less under military rule") to changing the topic (Saudi Arabia is brought up as if the human rights violations of the Saudi government somehow abrogate those of the Israeli government). But Cohen also launches a full frontal attack on civil society responses to Israeli apartheid, particularly Israeli Apartheid Week, which is being observed on campuses and in communities around the world this week:
"A recent op-ed on Israel in the Financial Times employs the word apartheid several times. Some of the time it seems to be applied to the West Bank, but other times it is applied to Israel proper. Either way, this shoe doesn't fit. (Security concerns are not rooted in racism.) The author of the piece is Henry Siegman, a harsh critic of Israeli policies and a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, so anti-Semitism is not the issue here -- just sound judgment. Sometimes impatience can lead to imprudence. But anti-Semitism is not so easily dismissed with others. This is "Israeli Apartheid Week" on campuses across the world, and it is clear that what furiously animates many of the protesters are not legitimate grievances but imaginary ones. Israel is not above criticism and the Palestinians have their case, but when that case is constructed out of lies about the Jewish state, it not only represents a wholly unoriginal cover of some old anti-Semitic ditties but also denigrates the Palestinian cause. It does not need lies."
How original, Mr. Cohen. If you don't agree with critics of Israel, call them anti-Semitic liars--or, if they're Jewish, question their motives. (As Glenn Greenwald points out at Salon.com, if the person using the term "apartheid" is a hawkish Israeli official such as Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak, simply ignore that they said what they said, even if it's much more recent news than Jimmy Carter's book.) Then pretend that you know what's best for the Palestinian cause--that you know better than hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli, and international civil society organizations calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli occupation and apartheid. But of course, they must all be liars, or anti-Semites, or both. Mr. Cohen is wrong about Israeli Apartheid Week, wrong about civil society responses to injustice and oppression, and wrong about apartheid. Here's just a smattering of examples of why Israel's policies toward Palestinians--residents of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, citizens of Israel, or refugees--are violations of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid:
  • The Convention on Apartheid identifies the "expropriation of landed property" of a particular racial, ethnic, or identity group as one of the "inhuman acts" that constitute the crime of apartheid. The South African apartheid regime broke the country into 10 noncontiguous Bantustans made of 13% of the total land, which were to serve as “homelands” for the black population. Israel’s “separation wall/fence” and settlements have broken the Palestinian territories into 12 noncontiguous cantons representing only 12% of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
  • The Convention condemns "Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including...the right to freedom of movement and residence." Palestinians rely on Israeli-issued “permits” to travel through a system of more than 600 checkpoints within the occupied territories. Israeli refusal to issue permits regularly prevents Palestinians from getting to schools, jobs, and even hospitals. In apartheid South Africa Blacks could be arrested to being outside of Bantustans and townships without government issued “passes.”
  • Black people in South Africa could not be citizens, and Colored people were only granted limited citizenship rights. Palestinians in the occupied territories are not citizens of any state, and Palestinian citizens of Israel have different citizenship rights than Israeli Jews. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel--instead, they have a partial "residency" status, one that can be taken away by the state if an individual is deemed to "no longer reside" in their city of birth.
  • East Jerusalem and the West Bank are splintered by a network of roads leading to illegal Israeli settlements (where residence is open only for Jewish citizens of Israel); these roads can only be used by Israelis, while Palestinians must use older, often unpaved roads.
  • Within Israel, Palestinian citizens are discriminated against by a series of laws, policies, and regulations, including restrictions on the right of Palestinians to own land, inequalities in funding of schools and municipalities, inequalities in the land open to development around Arab towns and cities versus Jewish towns and cities, inequalities in the granting of building permits, and citizenship laws that discriminate against Palestinians. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel recently issued a challenge to one of these discriminatory citizenship laws, which bans Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens from gaining Israeli citizenship. (For more information on the discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, check out the Arab Association for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Adalah Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel).
  • Citizenship laws also discriminate against Palestinian refugees, who are denied their right of return while Israel grants citizenship to any Jewish person from anywhere in the world.
  • Even in language, Israel's policies toward Palestinians resemble apartheid. The Hebrew word "hafrada," which is used to refer to the Wall and to the policy of "disengagement," means separation (as in "separation barrier"). Apartheid is an Afrikaner word which also means separation.
So no, Mr. Cohen. Civil society critics of Israeli policy are not anti-Semitic, nor are they liars. Their use of the term "apartheid" is based in international law and fact. Your vague accusations and dissembling, on the other hand, have no basis in reality. Don't let Richard Cohen--or the Washington Post or New York Daily News--off the hook. Use our talking points and media action resources to write letters to the editor explaining why Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. Write blogs and op-eds, update Facebook statuses, and send Tweets about Israeli apartheid and the international BDS movement that is working to end it. And get involved in the BDS movement yourself--in your community, your congregation, or your campus. Mr. Cohen: It is apartheid. And I ain't lyin'. (US Campaign National Media Coordinator David Hosey at an anti-Wall protest in al-Ma'sara, Bethlehem district)