On February 25, a group of Ontario Members of Provincial Parliament (MPP) voted unanimously on a motion to “denounce” this year's Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Claiming to send a message of so-called “moral suasion” to all “fair-minded Ontarians,” Peter Shurman, the MPP who tabled the motion, argued that the mere application of the phrase 'Israeli apartheid' is “about as close to hate speech as one can get without being arrested.” In what seemed a veiled threat of possible arrests in the future of those accusing Israel with the crime of apartheid, Shurman moved on to state that he was “not certain” that its use “doesn't actually cross over that line.”
To make the case for curtailing the use of this phrase, random online blogs not associated with IAW are quoted, after which a barrage of name-calling which vilify the organizers as “propagandists” and “liars,” and label IAW as “pure garbage” and “toxic” follow. Once tabled, a range of bizarre anecdotes of relatives, neighbors and friends who support the Zionist project were presented by various NDP, Liberal and Conservative MPPs as reasons for supporting this blatant censure of freedom of expression. Other than a letter written by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, distancing the NDP from the motion, there was little disagreement.
Israeli Apartheid: Not an Analogy
Of course, campaigns to stifle criticism of Israeli crimes of apartheid are not new. A similar unity by senior Canadian Members of Parliament and university administrations surfaced during last year's IAW with the financial blackmail of local community organizations and campus groups, bureaucratic harassment of trade unions supporting Palestine solidarity groups, vilification of respected community leaders, baseless accusations of anti-Semitism aimed at capturing and ending all criticism of Israel – an all-encompassing umbrella that would also capture dissenting Jewish and Israeli voices – and with elaborate attempts to stifle organizing on campuses by denying space for lectures and panel discussions, and banning the official poster of the initiative.
Evidenced by a series of academic lectures and presentations welcomed with packed rooms of students of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict during last year's IAW, their united effort failed.
As a result, this year, Ontario MPPs are not interested in a political discussion. Realizing that public dissent and discourse in the face of continued infringements of human dignity and blatant violations of international law cannot be muted easily, the argument is now that there is no issue with debating the Israel-Palestine conflict, instead, “the problem is the name Israeli Apartheid Week.” The concern lies with the mere use of the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the Israeli system of occupation, expulsion, exclusion and exploitation.
So, what is the issue with the term ‘apartheid’? Ontario MPPs seem to argue that the term has an expiration date. Apartheid, Shurman says, “was only ever applied in one historical case and remains applicable only to that one period of South African history.” We cannot condemn the racial discrimination embedded in the system of laws, institutions, structures, policies and practices which regulate the relationship between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people until we invent another term. In other words, people of conscience are asked to ignore the elephant in the room.
On this note, the record is clear. Palestinian, Israeli, and international academics, legal scholars and solidarity activists are not arguing that apartheid South Africa is an exact replica of Israeli apartheid. In fact, it would do the MPPs and their supporters some good to read “Not an Analogy: Israel and the Crime of Apartheid” by Hazem Jamjoum of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. In this piece, Jamjoum argues that while points of similarity and difference between apartheid South Africa and Israeli apartheid are outlined with great detail by prominent scholars and solidarity activists, apartheid is a political and legal system that could be practiced by any state. He moves on to point out that even with regards to the legal definition of apartheid, the 1973 adoption of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid by the UN General Assembly explained that the definition of the crime of apartheid was not limited to the case and borders of South Africa. In other words, there is no basis for the argument that apartheid refers exclusively to a particular government, period of rule, or moment in history.
MPPs Malign the Work of
International Legal Figures, Academics
Charging Israel with the crime of apartheid was not concocted by the organizers of IAW. Defining Israel’s institutionalized domination and multifaceted system of control over the Palestinian people as apartheid is the result of an informed position held by a range of Palestinian, Israeli, and international academics, religious figures, journalists, politicians and other persons of conscience.
On numerous occasions, John Dugard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has asserted the fact that Israel's ongoing military presence is not a 'normal' type of occupation; a controlling force over a territory after a period of violent conflict. Instead, Dugard points out that what Palestinians experience on a daily basis is described as “the regime of a colonizing power under the guise of occupation which includes many of the worst features of apartheid.”
Former President of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, compared Israeli violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to “the apartheid of an earlier era,” urging the international community that “we must not be afraid to call something what it is.” Also, in a recent article, former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America, Henry Siegman, argued that “Israel's relentless drive to establish 'facts on the ground'… have succeeded in locking in the irreversibility of its colonial project” and as a result “Israel has crossed the threshold from 'the only democracy in the Middle East' to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.”
The extensive list of prominent Palestinian, Israeli and international intellectuals, politicians, academics, journalists, religious figures, and solidarity activists who have used the term apartheid to describe Israel and its policies of exclusion also includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, British-Israeli Professor Avi Shlaim, Israeli Professor Oren Yiftachel, Palestinian-Jewish Professor Uri Davis among others.
If charging Israel with the crime of apartheid is the issue, then these Ontario MPPs would also advocate the silencing of these prominent figures along with the organizers of IAW.
The Suasion to Support Israeli Apartheid Week
Evident from the motion passed by this group of MPPs is their hypocrisy. There is complete neglect of Israel's blatant disregard for Palestinian life, and its ongoing violations of international law, international humanitarian law and human rights – all of which has been thoroughly documented by several human rights organizations. Rather, these MPPs have decided to reward Israel for its belligerence by taking steps to censor informed criticisms of the Zionist project by human rights organizations and persons of conscience. No doubt, Premier Dalton McGuinty's upcoming trade mission to Israel on May 23 is part of the reward-package.
And it does not stop here. Conservative Member of Parliament Tim Uppal, recently declared his intention to introduce a motion before the House of Commons condemning IAW, the planned series of informed lectures and panel discussions, and, by extension, the charge of Israeli violations with the crime of apartheid. In this context, supporters, participants and organizers of IAW will attempt to address Israel's systematic violations of human dignity, which the Ontario Premier and this group of MPPs seem to have excused. Supporting IAW this year means continuing to assert the need to hold Israel accountable for its recalcitrance, its military adventurism, and refusing to yield to efforts by elected officials to intimidate and silence advocates of human rights.
Shourideh Molavi is based in Toronto, and writes regularly on Israeli crimes of apartheid.