Israel Apartheid Week and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement have certainly been making headlines lately. Earlier this month, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, Israeli Apartheid Week, designed to raise awareness about the BDS movement, is currently taking place in countries around the world. Campuses and communities will participate during the timeframe of February 19 – April 17. Events at many colleges and universities have already been planned, and range from talks on colonialism to conferences, concerts, plays, and more.

Both the BDS movement’s Nobel Prize nomination and Israeli Apartheid Week have received quite a bit of media attention, both in the secular and Jewish press. Unfortunately, often times that media attention does not give proper context or background on what the BDS movement really is. Young students especially, upon reading statements that highlight Israel’s “human rights violations” or refusal to give Palestinians equal rights, may have serious and complex questions that deserve well-informed answers. Here are some of the most common questions we’ve come across, and information on how to address them:

What is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement?

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) is the most well-known tool of the delegitimization campaign. It is made up of a loosely organized group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals who pressure governments, groups and others to impose economic sanctions on Israel, encourage them to boycott Israeli businesses and cultural and academic institutions, and call for the divestment of economic resources from Israeli companies. Organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace, American Muslims for Palestine, Palestine Legal, and others provide professional services and guidance to student activists on campus, helping to create a well-run machine of anti-Israel propaganda and activity.

What are the BDS movement’s goals?

The BDS movement’s goal is to end the State of Israel. This goal is couched in language intended to createa veil of legitimacy around the BDS movement, through its call for Israel to

  • accept the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the modern State of Israel,
  • provide full equality of Arab-Palestinian citizens according to Israeli law,
  • end the “occupation” and colonization of Arab lands, and dismantle the “Wall,” or security barrier.

Full right of return of Palestinian refugees goes beyond United Nations recommendations on the issue,and ignores the fact that the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to Israel would require the State to care for a population that jeopardizes its security and stability—something that even the UN does not require of Israel. Moreover, Israel is a democratic state; all of its citizens, including Arab-Israelis, have had full equality under the law since Israel’s founding in 1948. For the BDS movement to suggest otherwise is false and creates a perception of an apartheid regime where institutionalized racism is permitted. Additionally, in Palestinian parlance, the “occupation” does not go back to the 1967 War, but is actually dated to 1948, when Israel was founded, and the War of Independence. When the BDS movement calls for an end to “occupation,” they are really calling for the demise of the Jewish state. Comparing Israelis to “colonizers” further contributes to the false image of Israel as an illegitimate state, despite the international community’s recognition of the Jewish people’s right to a state in their ancestral homeland.

Hasn’t the Jewish community been involved in boycott movements in the past? What makes BDS different?

The Jewish community has supported boycott, divestment, and sanctions movements in the past, specifically in regard to apartheid South Africa, and currently, Iran. In these particular situations, boycott, divestment, and sanctions were tools utilized to bring rogue states to heel and cause them to cease their serious human rights violations and dangerous weapons programs. It is important to note that while the tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions themselves are inherently “value neutral,” their intention and direction determines whether or not they are appropriate in a given situation.

Utilizing BDS against Israel is a profound misuse of these tactics. The BDS movement commonly compares Israel to South Africa, seeking to equate the Jewish state with the apartheid regime. This is a fabricated allegation. Israel is a pluralistic democratic society in which all of its citizens are equal before the law, in contrast to South Africa’s policies under apartheid. The BDS movement uses lies and exaggeration to defame Israel, along with misinterpretation of international law. BDS supporters claim that boycotting, divesting from, or sanctioning Israel will bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In reality, the BDS movement seeks only to destroy the Jewish character of the State of Israel by preying on the good intentions of thoughtful, caring individuals who believe in social justice and human rights.

What is Israeli Apartheid Week?

Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is an annual international campaign that seeks to build support for the idea of Israel as an apartheid state. A tactic of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), IAW’s end goal is the same as that of the larger BDS movement: the end of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state. IAW often, though not always, takes place on college campuses with a week-long series of inflammatory events, sometimes featuring street theater like student activist “die-ins,” as well as the infamous “apartheid wall,” which is generally constructed in prominent places on campus quads and is meant to represent the separation barrier that divides areas in the disputed territories from Israel proper. Anti-Israel activists on college campuses often seek to take advantage of the week’s events to engage new students in the BDS movement on campus.

What is apartheid?

Apartheid, which means “apartness” in Afrikaans, was a system of institutionalized racism that characterized the country of South Africa from 1948-1994. Under the government-sanctioned system of apartheid, black African rights were curtailed and the rights of the minority were given primacy. The population of South Africa was separated along racial lines: individuals were issued identity cards that categorized them by race; towns were designated as “white,” “black,” “colored” and “Indian.” So-called “mixed marriages” between races were outlawed, and municipal areas were segregated, leading to separate buses, beaches, drinking fountains, hospitals, schools, etc. Services provided to non-whites were usually inferior to those provided to whites. Non-whites were not enfranchised under the apartheid system.

Apartheid was condemned throughout the world, including by the United Nations, the Catholic Church, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and by many governments and prominent individuals. South Africa was subjected to boycott and divestment actions because of its system of oppression against its non-white population. Apartheid was eventually dismantled after three years of internal negotiations, culminating in open elections for the entire country in 1994. Today, “apartheid” is sometimes used to describe any state-sanctioned segregation or discrimination of minority groups’ rights or civil liberties.

What is the “apartheid allegation?”

The apartheid allegation is often used by Israel’s detractors to attempt to isolate her from Western, democratic nations. Deligitimizers compare Israel to South Africa, and claim that Israel is an “apartheid state” with institutionalized, government-sanctioned policies of racism and discrimination against its Arab citizens, along with Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa is common among those participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel, and is in fact one of the core tenants of the movement.

Is Israel an “apartheid state?”

Israel is not an apartheid state. Israel is a democracy governed by the rule of law, where all its citizens, including its many minorities, have equal rights. These rights have been afforded all citizens from the moment of Israel’s founding, and are laid out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Non-Jews, including Arabs and Druze, hold positions in government and in the Israeli Supreme Court. Israel’s Knesset currently has a dozen Arab-Israeli Knesset members, while Arab-Israeli judge Salim Joubran is a lifetime member of the Supreme Court. Any Israeli citizen may challenge a policy of the Israeli government by bringing suit to the Supreme Court’s High Court of Justice, a right that American citizens themselves do not possess in the United States. Israel’s society, while it does have many challenges, is, for the most part, open and pluralistic, and is able to boast a spirited internal debate about civil rights, and government and military policies. Israel’s system of governance is the antithesis of apartheid South Africa’s; to suggest otherwise is to defame and demonize the Jewish state.

But what about the disputed territories?

The disputed territories, or, as they are commonly referred to, the “West Bank” and/or “Judea and Samaria,” along with the Gaza Strip, are often linked to the apartheid allegation, withIsrael’s detractors accusing it of practicing apartheid against Palestinians residing in those areas. This is a false accusation.

The Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are not citizens of Israel; rather, they are ruled by their own democratically elected governments, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the governance of the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank. In accordance with the Oslo Accords, Israel still maintains military control in and around Palestinian-ruled areas in order to prevent terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Israel’s security measures, including checkpoints, identification cards, security roads, and security barriers, are designed to address Israel’s serious safety concerns. These measures are not designed or intended to create a system of segregation, but rather to protect innocent civilians from the constant threat of terrorism and guerilla warfare. The status of Judea and Samaria and of the people residing in it is currently on the table of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week are certainly cause for concern. Discuss them with your teens, give them background and context, and listen to their questions.

Photo from Times of Israel