There is undoubtedly a case to be made against the recent actions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, but Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) does not make it. This failure, and the way that their message is delivered, actively degrades the pro-Palestinian contribution to public discourse. In order to fully understand the negative impact that groups like this have, one must understand not only in what ways they are wrong, but also why their actions are so harmful to their own cause.
There is no question that SAIA should be allowed on campus and that their activities should in no way be impeded, because freedom of speech is an imperative in a western democracy. However ignorant and repulsive their message is, they have a right to express their views. It is equally important, however, that the case for peaceful resolution be made in the most plain and non-vitriolic language possible.
SAIA is guilty of violent rhetoric and thinly veiled bigotry, but the rational man must rise above this and deal with simple facts. The Oxford Dictionary defines apartheid as: ‘a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race’. One might ask where, within the state of Israel, this is occurring. Of course non-Israeli citizens are offered fewer legal rights and protections, as non-nationals are in almost any country, but this is a socially justifiable system based not on race but on nationality. An Arab-Israeli is not viewed any differently under Israeli law than an Israeli Jew. In fact, an Arab in Israel has far more rights that in many of Israel’s neighbour states (if there are apartheid states in the Middle East Israel is not among them). Therefore, any argument of Israel being an apartheid state is based in ignorance, and should not be considered worthy of public debate.
More interesting is the case made against Israeli actions in the disputed territories. Under International Law these areas are not a part of the state of Israel. It is important to make this distinction because the rules change dramatically in such places. In the West Bank there are Jewish only settlements, and different roads for Jews and Arabs. This is wrong, and represents a serious policy error on the part of the Israeli government. These actions, however, are vindicated, or at least rendered justifiable, by the existential threat posed to Israel by regional militant groups. As long as Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah continue to have the annihilation of the Israeli state in their mandates, it is easy for Israel to claim such actions as self-defense. Segregated roads are seen as necessary to ensure public safety, and in many ways are to be expected. If any member of SAIA were to be in the shoes of an Israeli soldier in the West Bank, there is little doubt that they would have advocated similar steps to decrease the chances of violent exchanges in the street.
The settlements represent the real problem. Yasir Arafat correctly identified that, “It is impossible to discuss the sharing of a pizza while one side won’t stop eating it.” The settlement debate is far more legitimate, and this should be the focus of public discussion rather than the crass accusations and hateful lies that plague public debate on the Middle East conflict from both sides.
A brief look at many of the pro-Palestinian social media groups reveals a startling resurrection of Nazi propaganda, blood libel and the oldest of accusations against the Jews, namely deicide. Closer to home a particularly worrying trend is the systematic desecration of the Israeli flag and the Star of David in the tunnels of Carleton. This represents a worrying re-emergence of open anti-Semitism and has no place in civilized society. Groups like SAIA promote the hateful and violent mindset that causes these actions with their aggressive and provocative behaviour.
That said many of the actions of Israeli soldiers, and many of Israel’s policies in the disputed territories, are equally questionable. This ought to be the focus of any pro-Palestinian groups, but SAIA chooses lies, bigotry and vitriol, and therefore detracts from public discourse. With this in mind one should dismiss SAIA, and be certain to verify any claims made by this systematically dishonest and bigoted organization. For the sake of peace, it is important that both sides remain truthful, reasonable and respectful, and organizations like SAIA prevent peaceful resolution with their methods and message.