​JACKSON: Language matters for Israel-Palestine

We should look critically at the effects the usage of “apartheid” state has on Israel’s geopolitical identity

Full disclosure: five months ago, I used the term “apartheid” to describe the political landscape of Jerusalem. Though I regret it now, I wielded the word with what I felt was righteous indignation as I watched a conflict between my neighbors and the Israeli Defense Force unfold. Screams were muffled by molotov cocktails and, as the streets filled with teargas, I saw one mother use the corners of her hijab to cover her children’s faces — filtering the toxic air.

Living for a semester in East Jerusalem, I was privy to a view of the third intifada that Jewish residents living west of Jaffa gate never saw. While I was horrified by the actions of extremists — specifically with the shooting at the Har Nof synagogue and the attacks on light rail stops — I was sympathetic to my peaceful, moderate neighbors who lived under the daily burden of collective punishment and inescapable poverty. Each day I heard stories of my friends in my neighborhood arrested, boys as young as 10, and as I walked from my apartment on the Mount of Olives and into West Jerusalem, across the 1949 Armistice Agreement line running through the city, I experienced disparate realities — with Highway 60 demarcating a clear line of segregation. However, what is unclear, and up for charged debate, is whether the city is separated because of legal discrimination.

In her recent guest column, Jennifer Sachs lays out the “inaccuracy and moral backwardness” of the application of the term “apartheid” to the state of Israel.

I agree with Sachs that any use of the term apartheid is laden with incendiary accusations. I regret my flagrant use of the term five months ago — for I have people I care about on both sides of the conflict to whom the use of the term “apartheid” deeply offends (note: if you don’t believe me, remember my last column was in staunch defense of Orthodox Jews and advocated for Shabbat-friendly dorms on Grounds).

As a result, I have learned to state my feelings on the segregation of Jerusalem in a less offensive manner for the purposes of social semantics. However, debating the use of the word in informal conversation is, to me, somewhat moot. What is more critical, and what Sachs did not address, is analyzing the applicability of the term in public, legal councils and by government officials (e.g. John Kerry). When used in the Security Council and before the General Assembly, “apartheid” takes on a powerful imperative to action from the International Criminal Court.

In addition to her failure to address the very clear legal parameters surrounding the public use of “apartheid,” Sachs’ reductive analysis of the definition of race results in an inadequate framework for her comparison of South African and Israeli political landscapes. I hope to fill in the factual gaps.

In 1973, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which was ratified by 107 member states (unfortunately not including the United States or Israel). According to Article 2 of that convention, the term applies to 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."

To analyze the applicability of the term of apartheid to a state, a clear definition of the term “racial discrimination” must be established. The 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, explicitly drawn on by the apartheid convention and signed by Israel, states:

“The term ‘racial discrimination’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin [from the] fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Reducing race to a matter of skin color is an inadequate definition of racial identity. Sachs therefore cannot conclude Israel does not racially discriminate simply because it does not reflect the “bigoted environment” of a clear segregation of skin colors. As the Convention legally outlined, the use of the term apartheid does not require any situational commonalities between the state in question and South Africa.

Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, has created a database of laws that they argue discriminate against Arab communities and citizens on the basis of race. What is tricky about these laws is that their discriminatory nature is often implicit. Because of this, it is difficult to peg Israel as being explicitly discriminatory, for while the legal code often implicates that all Israeli citizens will be held to the same standard, in action the enforcement of such laws varies significantly across the divide of East and West Jerusalem.

The very pro-Israel Editorial Board at the Jerusalem Post even conceded last month “the most glaring discrimination against Arab Israelis is, perhaps, the unequal allocation of resources and budgets.” They noted poverty, weak law enforcement, high levels of unemployment, failing infrastructure, a lack of public transportation and inadequate planning for housing that keeps up with natural population growth as issues facing Arab populations, citing unemployment and municipal tax statistics for support.

I saw the effects that doubled Arab unemployment rates, withheld building permits, high municipal taxes (Arabs across the state are taxed 44 percent more), and a lack of water, sewage and waste management had on the dirty and poverty-stricken neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. I also saw the emotional toll punitive citizenship and education laws had on my neighbors. This is why I angrily penned “apartheid” five months ago.

However, in the long run, it doesn’t matter what I write on my Wordpress. What matters more is how one tactfully engages opposing viewpoints in productive conversation and what matters most is how the status of Jerusalem and Israel are defined by international legal councils. I don’t mind if the editorial board of the Jerusalem Post uses “discrimination” as a euphemistic way to avoid calling the political landscape of Jerusalem what it really is. However, I do believe it is the responsibility of government officials, heads of state and, most importantly, representatives on the Security Council to analyze the current segregation of Jerusalem (and Israel as a whole) and use the term apartheid as they see fit to encourage international councils to respond punitively to human rights violations and racial discrimination.

Lauren Jackson is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at l.jackson@cavalierdaily.com.

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