Apartheid is not just a metaphor

December 8, 2015

Focusing on the complicity of Israeli universities in maintaining the occupation of Palestine, and on the repression of academic and political freedom for Palestinians, a new collection of essays, Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities, edited by Ashley Dawson and Bill V. Mullen, explains why scholars and students around the world should cut all ties with Israeli institutions.

The following presentation by Ashley Dawson was one of several at the New York City launch event for the book.

I WAS born in 1965 in South Africa during some of the darkest days of apartheid, when most of the political opposition was either in prison or in exile, and when the mass democratic movement hadn't taken off again. I've spent a lot of my career as a professor thinking about colonialism, settler colonialism, imperialism and apartheid as a way of connecting with that history and to make sense of it in the present.

Understanding the history of apartheid and fighting its contemporary manifestations matters a lot to me on a personal level, but I think it should be of great concern to all of us. In this presentation I'll try to explain why we should all join in this struggle.

Apartheid is not just a metaphor to be used loosely. It refers to a specific set of policies. In this regard, I want to say at the outset that we should all be clear: Israel is not exactly the same as South Africa. By using this term "apartheid," I do not intend to suggest that the two societies are exactly the same.

In fact, if you know something about the history of apartheid in South Africa, it itself changed. Before 1948, when the British were still in control of South Africa, there was a set of relatively loose policies as well as some laws in place that imposed forms of segregation and oppression on the majority population. It was only with the election of the National Party in 1948 though that apartheid as a totalizing formal legal system--what we now think of as characterizing racist South Africa--was put in place.

Palestinians wait in line before dawn to pass through a checkpoint outside Bethlehem
Palestinians wait in line before dawn to pass through a checkpoint outside Bethlehem

South African apartheid was implemented gradually, and then under pressure from the mass democratic movement in the 1980s, some specific aspects of the policy were dismantled. By the mid-1980s, for example, the regime was allowing South Asians and so-called "colored people" to have representation in parliament. And of course, the country's Black majority was supposed to have sovereignty in the "homelands."

One of the main elements of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa--a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign--was a challenge to the material oppressions on the ground as well as the ideological legitimacy of the South African government, particularly the idea that the regime was giving meaningful representation and sovereignty to the nonwhite majority there. It is precisely such a campaign of debunking that we need to mobilize around Israel, which touts itself as a paragon of democracy in a turbulent region.


WHAT THEN is apartheid? A brief legal definition would perhaps be useful: Apartheid is constituted by inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them. This definition, which grounds our use of the term in our book, is derived from two international treaties: the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973) and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998).

These international treaties and their prohibitions against apartheid have the status not simply of international customary law. They are pre-emptory rules of international law--what's known as Jus cogens norm. That status implies that other states and international organizations are obligated to cooperate in order to end serious breaches of these norms. So if Israel is in fact an apartheid state, then international organizations and states are under an obligation to put an end to that apartheid. And so are individuals such as all of us. This is why this term is so important.

As Omar Barghouti puts it, "The significance to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination of the fact that international law considers apartheid a crime against humanity--that therefore invites sanctions similar in nature and breadth to those imposed on apartheid South Africa--cannot be overemphasized."

Of course, there are a lot of differences between South Africa and Israel. There are massive demographic differences: In apartheid South Africa, there was a white minority that sought to maintain domination over a Black majority, while in Israel, there is a Jewish majority population engaging in discriminatory treatment of a minority of Palestinians in Israel itself, as well as discriminatory treatment and military occupation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. And Israel doesn't have a direct equivalent to the noxious "petty apartheid" laws like the Separate Amenities Act that racially segregated bathrooms and beaches and water fountains in South Africa.

But there are very important similarities, structural similarities that allow us to talk about apartheid in both societies. Here I'll detail three key elements, first in South Africa and then in Israel.

In South Africa the apartheid regime was sustained by three key sets of laws.

The first of these divided the country's population into distinct racial groups, and granted superior rights and privileges and services to whites. Among these racializing laws were the Population Registration Act of 1950, which required people of color to carry passbooks; the Bantu Education Act of 1953; and the Separate Amenities Act of 1953. These laws institutionalized the informal racial hierarchies that had prevailed during the pre-apartheid era, creating rigid legal divisions between racial groups like whites, "coloreds," Indians and Blacks.

The second cornerstone of South African apartheid was a series of laws that segregated the population into distinct geographical areas that were allotted to different racial groups. The segregation imposed by the Group Areas Act of 1950 was then enforced by a series of pass laws like the Native Laws Amendment of 1952, which restricted passage of Blacks and other racialized groups in cities and other parts of the country allocated to whites.

These segregating measures were developed into what architects called "grand apartheid." It was through these policies that the South African government was able to establish a series of homelands, also known as bantustans, into which de-nationalized Black South Africans were transferred and forced to reside. This is on a tiny minority of the land in South Africa, in general, the poorest land. The regime claimed the country's majority population had sovereignty in these so-called homelands.

The third key element of South African apartheid was a matrix of draconian security laws that legalized unlimited administrative detention, torture, censorship, banning and assassination of opponents of the apartheid regime.


NOW LET'S talk about Israel, where a parallel set of legal arrangements to those in apartheid South Africa has been instituted. The first key element of Israeli apartheid is a series of laws and policies that distinguish between Jews and non-Jews, and grant preferred legal status and material benefits to the former.

Israel's "Law of Return," codified in 1950, defines who is a Jew for legal purposes and allows every Jew throughout the global diaspora to immigrate to Israel. The 1952 Citizenship Law subsequently granted automatic citizenship to all those who immigrate to Israel under the "Law of Return," while simultaneously establishing insurmountable obstacles to citizenship for Palestinian refugees. This special standing to Jewish identity was then applied extra-territorially in the Occupied Territories, extending preferential legal status and material benefits to Jewish settlers.

The second cornerstone of Israeli apartheid consists of policies designed to fragment the occupied Palestinian territories in order to facilitate segregation and domination--geographical occupation and domination.

There is a longstanding history here: the Sharon-Wachman Plan was drafted in 1978 while Ariel Sharon was head of the ministerial committee on settlements, calling for the establishment of 100 urban industrialized Israeli settlements on mountain ridges across the West Bank, organized into concentrated blocks connected by a set of east-west running highways.

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories--decades later and as a result of these policies--live in an archipelago of besieged and noncontiguous enclaves, essentially the equivalent of micro-Bantustans functioning to obscure Israel's domination of the Occupied Territories, just as the white regime hoped its policy of Grand Apartheid would obscure its stripping of self-determination from that country's Black population.

The third and final key element of Israeli apartheid is a matrix of "security" laws and policies the state employs. These include the extrajudicial killing, torture, and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians. Conditions in the Occupied Territories, with its system of checkpoints, racially segregated roads and permanent settlements, are in total breach of international law.

In 2010, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of lawyers and judges found that the legal conditions of the military justice system--justice is administrated by military courts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories--do not comply with international standards and "the exercise of jurisdiction by a military court over civilians not performing military tasks is normally inconsistent with a fair, impartial independent administration of justice." This military system has been in place for decades.

I hope this gives you a bit of a sense of why we use the term "apartheid" in our book, and why we see it as a key reason for embracing the BDS campaign.

I want to close by turning very quickly to the question of universities and why we should boycott Israeli universities. In the apartheid system in South Africa, universities were absolutely key to the maintenance of apartheid on a material level: they helped empower the South African Defense Forces, which were able to dominate the mass democratic movement militarily; they were also key in terms of providing an ideological legitimation to the regime, coming up with ideas such as the Homelands policy.

One can say something very similar about Israeli universities. Many of them have very strong links to the military establishment. Equally if not more important, many Israeli universities and a number of Israeli academics play key roles in providing intellectual support for the Israeli state and its endeavors. This is why it's particularly important to understand we are targeting institutions that are directly linked to the Israeli state, which, as I have shown, we can legitimately label as apartheid.

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