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Point/Counterpoint: Debating the State of Israel

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Israel is an apartheid state

This week marks the seventh Annual Israeli Apartheid Week. From March 7 to 11, over 70 cities and campuses across the world will host lectures, film screenings, public actions, and cultural events that aim to interrogate and expose the nature of Israel’s apartheid system and to contribute to a growing global movement for Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (also known as BDS).

It is no doubt important to clarify the merit in our use of the term apartheid. Apartheid is a term that literally means ‘separateness.’ Despite being most often associated with the system of racial segregation established by South Africa’s white minority after 1948, the crime of apartheid as it is defined by international law refers more generally to efforts by any state to institutionalize racism through discriminatory laws, land expropriation, and the forced displacement of populations.

Israel is a country founded on the idea of different rights for different people. First, Jews, wherever they live, have the right to “return” to Israel, but the Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their homes in 1948 do not have this right; in fact, they are explicitly denied Israeli citizenship, and denied the right to return to their homes. Second, the military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, characterized by a matrix of draconian “security” laws and policies, denies Palestinians living in these territories their right to self-determination, including their freedom of movement and access to employment, education, and health care. The third and final pillar of Israeli apartheid is the differential treatment of Palestinians within the state of Israel, to whom a different set of laws is applied in various dimensions of social, political, and economic life.

Through the application of economic, political and diplomatic pressures on Israel, the BDS movement seeks Israel’s compliance with international law and demands that it respect and promote the right of return of Palestinian refugees, under UN Resolution 194; end its military occupation of Palestinian territories, under UN Resolution 242; and recognize the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality. IAW, specifically, aims to hold to account the University of Toronto and its commitment to the “vigilant protection of human rights.”

The criticism is often leveled that IAW is divisive and stands in contrast to attempts at dialogue and compromise. We would contend, however, that the problem is not one of dialogue, but of the grounds upon which such dialogue is predicated. Respect for the other party’s humanity should be a precondition for, and never a consequence of, dialogue. We cannot engage in dialogue about whether or not a group of people — Palestinians in this case — deserve basic human rights. There is scope for dialogue about how to achieve those ends, and once those ends are met, there will be scope for dialogue about how to organize a society where all persons can live together and share the land — but not over human rights or international law. Therefore, respect for international law is a necessary condition for dialogue.

We face a similar problem when confronting the question of compromise. Opponents of IAW are looking for compromise where none can be made. If proponents of Israel’s apartheid policies take the stand that Palestinians should have no rights at all, then the position that Palestinians should have some rights, but not full rights, becomes the position of “compromise.” We cannot accept this. The demands of IAW are not contentious: they are consistent with international law.

That IAW fosters healthy dialogue and debate is self-evident: one need only look at this exchange and those others stored in the archives of The Varsity. It seems to us that IAW has created more dialogue than many other efforts. A growing movement with clear, specific demands and strategy does more to get people talking than any dialogue based on leaving our principles at the door.

In what could be argued to be the most comprehensive of unfriendly commentaries on IAW, Israel’s Reut Institute manages to vindicate our efforts, describing the week as follows: “The risk posed is that [IAW] will create an equivalency between Israel and Apartheid-era South Africa that penetrates the mainstream of public and political consciousness.” While we disagree with the Reut Institute that this would be a bad thing, we hope their fear, that IAW will help expose Israel’s apartheid system to public and political consciousness, comes to pass. Such exposure, we hope, will help end Israel’s apartheid policies and practices, as similar efforts did for South Africa less than two decades ago.

For a full schedule of events, please visit toronto.apartheidweek.org. Students Against Israeli Apartheid can be reached at [email protected] —Faraz Vahid Shahidi

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Israel is a free, democratic state

An Israeli doctor, Dr. Raz Somech, saved the life of a baby boy with an immune deficiency. The boy was from the Gaza Strip. This story, documented in the Academy Award shortlisted film Precious Life, is not one typically discussed on campus at any point in the year.

For the last four years, a twenty-four year old Israel Defense Forces soldier has been held in captivity by the terrorist group Hamas. His captors have never permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other humanitarian organization to visit him. This story, Gilad Shalit’s, is another one that is not typically discussed on campus.

Stories that showcase the intricacies of Israel’s reality are not the ones that dominate at U of T. Instead, our campus shamefully helped to provide the birthplace of a global student movement that continues to make false accusations that demonize and delegitimize Israel.

As students, we sit in lectures accepting information to repeat on our next exams, but in reality, should we not give close consideration to the facts before accepting anyone else’s statements and claims? Let’s start with the popular name of this week. Contrary to what that label entails, no Israeli citizen faces legal segregation or institutionalized discrimination. Israel is a democratic state, where all citizens irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are protected by the same standards that we hold dear as Canadians. More specifically, Israeli Arabs hold office in the Israeli Parliament and all citizens are permitted to vote.

Now, you may also hear about a security perimeter that greatly decreases terrorist attacks in Israel. During the Second Intifada in 2003, Israel confronted a significant increase in suicide bombers from the West Bank. As all democracies do, Israel sought to provide protection for its citizens and erected a security fence. This was designed not to separate people but to prevent the entry of terrorists into the country; terrorists whose attacks resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries to Israeli citizens. As a result of its construction, terrorist activity has decreased by over 90 per cent. This success has translated into the end of Israelis living in constant fear of such attacks. The fence is a temporary measure, and when the Palestinian government renounces terrorist activity, it will be taken down. If Canada were experiencing frequent attacks from another nation along its borders, would we as Canadian citizens not expect our government to do the same?

A proper discussion of Israel goes beyond the struggle with the Palestinians and takes into account the many other people in and around it. These include its geographical situation, the location of its natural resources, its strategic needs to provide security for all its people, and so forth. These people include the many refugees — especially from Africa and others who are not Jewish — to whom Israel is a safe haven. Approximately 1,200 refugees cross into the country from the Sinai every month and are allowed to stay. While Israel has much to discuss internally on how to care for these people, merely allowing them to stay is a great feat.

Rather than discuss these complex issues in depth with openness and honesty, some wish to use the U of T campus to foster anti-Israel sentiment and create a hostile environment for all students. Regardless of whether a student is pro-Israel, anti-Israel, or simply curious, the campus should serve as a safe space where everyone can enter the conversation. Attending an academic institution should provide us with a place to explore and grapple with the many topics that discussing Israel raises.

This week, students will be tabling on campus and they will offer a real conversation about Israel. This will include just about anything you want to know: politics, technological advancements, humanitarian aid, good jokes, and so forth. Dr. Karen Held will be discussing her volunteer work in Haiti with IsraAid (Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Hart House Debates Room). Michael Coren & Ishmael Khaldi will also be speaking (Thursday at 4:30 p.m., Ryerson, Kerr Hall West 061). Finally, Israeli culture will be displayed at Layla Lavan, an Israeli-style Nuit Blanche party featuring Israeli bands, fashion, and an arts & crafts fair (Sunday at 6:30 p.m., On The Rox).

For this campus to hold a rational, constructive discussion about Israel, we must work towards providing an open, safe, and welcoming environment, all of which anti-Israel organizers deny students. Affixing false accusations and labels to a complicated issue only serves to prevent students from properly learning about the situation. The organizers have only created a divisive atmosphere that alienates the student body. This year, the Israel Affairs Committee urges you not to allow this group of students to control the conversation. This discussion is one that all students should feel comfortable engaging in!—Beca Bookman and Naomi Matlow