The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has found a new way to launch attacks against the Palestinian rights movement: young black voices from black universities. This new strategy comes in response to claims that the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is analogous to apartheid South Africa. This period in South African history from 1948-1994 represents the subordination of one group by another, a time when non-white inhabitants were subject to different sets of laws and unequal rights.
It is undeniable that the Palestinian people have been subject to less than suitable living conditions. Militarized checkpoints serve as a constant source of humiliation and harassment for Palestinians. The separation wall alone, constructed to protect the security of Israeli citizens, has done significant damage to morale of the Palestinian people, allowing the confiscation of large swaths of Palestinian land and splitting up villages and families. The barrier has even been dubbed the “Apartheid Wall” or “Berlin Wall.”
Members of the activist group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have spoken out in response to the Israeli Apartheid accusations. Edna Bonhomme, who is active in Palestine solidarity activism and was previously a member of SJP at Columbia University, explains the thinking: “If you look at South Africa, there were differential sets of laws for people of different races in education, jobs, housing, for example. Having a differentiated and unequal legal system where racial origin differentiates people is apartheid. In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the legal structure is that Arab residents have different rights than Jewish residents. It’s an apartheid structure.”
AIPAC is America’s most powerful pro-Israeli lobby. As Israel continues to come under attack from Palestinian groups and international activists, it has chosen to recruit black students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) as its shield. AIPAC provides the students with educational training concerning the Middle East and arranging for students to meet high-level politicians and officials, including President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Appealing to black students as a strategy does seem to be working for AIPAC. At last year’s AIPAC conference, a student from one HBCU stated: “How dare they use a word that has historic meaning for me,” said the speaker, to the loud cheers of the audience. “A word that conjures up some of the worst injustices an individual can suffer.”
Human rights activists do not intend to diminish or devalue South African apartheid, but rather use it as an example to bring light to the cruelty occurring in modern day Israel. Claims comparing Israel to South Africa were made as early at 1961 when Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of South African apartheid himself, stated “the Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel like South Africa is an apartheid state.”
It is necessary to use historical analysis to address current issues in global affairs. History can repeat itself and it is legitimate to claim that an apartheid-like model has resurfaced in another country. AIPAC and these students should be less defensive and more concerned that a situation that lends itself to comparison with apartheid exists in the 21st century.