Some days, it feels like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has as much a history at Columbia as it does in the Middle East. For the last three years at least, this campus has seen demonstrations about that conflict, in action and reaction, in various forms, and most notably during “Israeli Apartheid Week.” “Apartheid Week” is presented by the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine as an opportunity for truth and justice. But its overall campaign to liken Israel to an apartheid state is anything but that. Instead, skewing historical reality, it misrepresents one of the most vibrant democracies in the Middle East and frames it solely through the lens of the conflict. The use of visceral images such as the wall and mock checkpoints heightens tension and create conditions on this campus that make it difficult for many students to obtain a greater understanding of the complex issues and engage in meaningful, informed dialogue.
A system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, apartheid imposed racial segregation that dominated all aspects of life. Blacks did not have the right to vote, participate in government, marry a white person, or even be admitted to a white hospital. Apartheid rested on the proposition that blacks and other people of color were fundamentally inferior to the white race. But Israel’s previous offers to the Palestinian authorities, which would have led to a two-state solution, highlight its recognition of Palestinian self-determination. In doing so, Israeli policies have made it clear that the Palestinians are a people, deserving of a country of their own. Let us be clear: Israel is not an apartheid state.
The wall on Low Plaza is meant to resemble the security barrier constructed in Israel. Ignored by the C-SJP, it was built fundamentally to protect Israeli civilians from further violent acts of terror that were committed during the Second Intifada, a period that saw the loss of thousands of lives. The security fence has resulted in a dramatic reduction of terrorist attacks. Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, admitted in 2006 and again in 2008 that the security barrier was an obstacle for the group to carry out more suicide bombing attacks in Israel.
Unfortunately, the security fence often causes hardship for Palestinians in the West Bank. We recognize that the wall is a blight on the land and impedes the ease of travel in certain locations. Yet it must also be recognized that Israel has worked to take such conditions into account. Indeed, as noted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004, the Supreme Court of Israel “called on the Government of Israel to take Palestinian humanitarian concerns further into account in the construction of the barrier, even if doing so resulted in greater security risk to Israeli citizens.” This is not apartheid. This is democracy.
Finally, apartheid created a system of government and society that stratified groups based on ethnicity or based on simply being different. Israeli non-Jews, whether Christian or Muslim, man or woman, gay or straight, young or old, Arab or Ethiopian, can all vote in elections and serve in government. Israeli Arabs in particular have done so in every parliament since the state of Israel was created. No career is outside their reach, no level of education is blocked from their path, and no freedom or right is withheld because of gender, color, or religion. This is not tokenism. This is democracy.
The debacle that has become College Walk during “Israel Apartheid Week” makes it difficult to present these and other components of Israeli history and Israeli-Palestinian relations. We are saddened that the campus has become a place to see who can shout louder, a test of who can create a more volatile and charged image. LionPAC has therefore teamed with its fellow Hillel Israel groups and other campus pro-Israel students to stress conversation, not confrontation.
Using the term “apartheid” to demonize Israel is factually unfounded and will not bring reprieve and hope to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. It will not inform students about the complexities of life in the region. All it can do is twist images, blur narratives, and create an atmosphere of academic and intellectual dishonesty. In the very spirit of the campaign we are helping to drive, we ask all students who take interest in our respective issues to take an objective look once again. Just as we display the two flags of Israel and Palestine side by side, we reaffirm our commitment to dialogue and discussion with the goal of promoting a two-state solution to the conflict, with each side living in peace, security, and mutual recognition.
The author is a senior in the joint General Studies and Jewish Theological Seminary program. He is the president of LionPAC. This op-ed is written on behalf of the LionPAC executive board.