What’s so very wrong with ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’

I think I first heard the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” when I was a sophomore here at Tufts. It wasn’t something I had ever heard before, and I’ll admit that I was taken aback. That’s an understatement: I was repulsed. Comparing the struggle of Israelis and Palestinians over ancient lands and modern dreams was, to my mind, nothing like the blatant denial of human dignity to which South Africa subjected a subset of its own population on the basis of skin color. To appropriate the struggle of blacks in South Africa to demonize the state of Israel disgusted me.

It still does. But that’s not the biggest problem with so-called “Israeli Apartheid Week.” The seminal issue, for me, is the message that the title perpetuates about Jews.

I acknowledge that, of the pro-Palestinian protestors sprinkled across this campus, many of them do not mean to be hurtful. Many of them do not mean to send the wrong message. But they do. Here’s what “Israeli Apartheid” sounds like to someone who knows little about the complex security dilemmas, humanitarian needs and historic context of the region: Israel. That’s the Jewish place, right? Apartheid. That’s racism, right? Oh, I get it; the Jewish place must be racist against people who aren’t Jewish.

That’s the message this week sends, whether or not the messengers realize it. And it’s encapsulated in the image that The Daily chose to print just above last Wednesday’s Op-Ed, “Those without a Birthright.” The opinion piece, surprisingly attributed to no named individuals, attacks an opportunity that some Jews are given through a fund set up to subsidize travel to Israel. And just above the piece there is a photograph of a wall. In English, on that wall, is written: “They don’t let Jews like Jesus.” The message is clear: the Israelis are racist against people who aren’t Jewish.

And the problem is that such a message is patently false. You argue until your face turns blue about the legality of settlements in the West Bank, about rocket strikes from terror organizations or about the future of East Jerusalem. But when it comes to the religions of Israel, the biblically significant land is undeniably teeming with diversity.

First, let’s tackle this misconception that Israel is just for Jewish people. Census data from 2011 puts Jews at 75 percent of the country — comparable data puts the United States at 78 percent Christian. Then you have the 19 percent Muslims — in the United States, 0.6 percent — and the Christians, and the Druze, Bahais, Samaritans and so on, right up through atheists and agnostics of any or no religion. Israel is home to holy sites for a wide range of faiths, and the deference for those religions is so great that the Israeli government, at the behest of their Muslim citizens, forbids non-Muslims from praying at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This state was founded by no strangers to religious persecution and was structured democratically so that the citizens would determine the very laws that govern it. And every citizen, regardless of religion, has the right to vote, to run for office, or to seek reparations in court.

You want to talk about Judaism and religious discrimination? Let’s talk about Jordan, where official statistics say there are no Jewish people with citizenship, and where the government asks Jews not to visit wearing “Jewish dress.” Let’s talk about Saudi Arabia, which in 2004 had to apologize for stating on its tourism website that Jews were not permitted to enter the country, and where they cannot today practice Judaism publicly. Let’s talk about the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where the U.S. State Department cites the Hamas government for “arresting or detaining Muslims in Gaza who did not abide by Hamas’ strict interpretation of Islam and broadcasting a program calling for Jews to be killed.” The Middle East is replete with religious discrimination. But it isn’t coming from Israel.

There is a real struggle going on in the state of Israel. It’s a struggle about security. It’s a struggle about territory. It’s a struggle about different peoples wanting better futures. It is not a struggle of religion.

And perpetuating the myth that the Jewish state with the Jewish Birthright trips and the Star of David on its flag builds walls to keep non-Jews out might sound like it makes sense, but it’s plain wrong. In fact, it’s worse than wrong. And it’s worse than counterproductive. It’s defamatory.

My people aren’t the crusaders. We aren’t the fascists. And guess what? We aren’t the apartheidists, either. You want to combat racism? Try this: stop defaming our name. 

Brian Pilchik is a senior majoring in political science and computer science. He can be reached at Brian.Pilchik@tufts.edu.