Last month, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (C-SJP) sponsored Israeli Apartheid Week. In response, Hillel groups organized a campaign entitled "Separating Fact From Apartheid." To achieve this end, Hillel employed racist tactics to present a convivial face to Israel’s military and colonial occupation of Palestinian land. Hillel’s tokenistic rhetoric manifested itself in the Faces of Israel project (initiated by the Consulate General of Israel in New York in 2008), when an Ethiopian Jew, a Palestinian Israeli and a gay Israeli were invited to our campus to present the “real face” of Israeli society.
This phenomenon is, of course, familiar to American history. During segregation, the US government sent Black artists on international tours in a PR campaign to blur the harsh reality of Jim Crow and create an illusion of American inclusiveness and multiplicity. Today, think of any instance you’ve heard a peer attempt to downplay a racist statement by retorting: “I have a Black friend.” In the simplest terms, Hillel was importing its various “Black friends” in order to hide the reality of Israeli apartheid and its Jim Crow-like legislations.
To illustrate Israel’s “diversity,” Hillel set up a display of large poster boards of Israel’s token successful minorities.The first board featured Rana Raslan, who in 1999 became the first Arab to win a Miss Israel contest. Three years later, Raslan was quoted as saying "Till today, I am treated like trash at the airport. I haven't visited Israel for three months because of what I had gone through during security checks. I was asked questions in a vulgar manner, held for hours. They also searched me; I have no problem being treated like any other civilian, but there is a way to do so, with delicacy."
Another poster featured Salim Joubran, a lawyer born in Haifa, who was elected in 2004 to become the first Arab to hold a permanent appointment as a Supreme Court Justice. In a piece published in the Spectator by LionPAC’s director of public relations, Huberman claimed that having a Palestinian-Israeli on Israel’s Supreme Court is evidence that Israel is “a democratic, multi-ethnic country that upholds equal rights for all of its citizens.”4 Huberman believes that the appointment of the first and only permanent Palestinian Israeli judge to Israel’s Supreme Court, 5 in its 56 years of existence, is evidence of its “equal rights” and “democratic” nature. According to Sikkuy's data, at the end of 2008 only 42 of 589 judges in Israel were Arabs - 7 percent of all the judges. A 2008 report about fair representation of the Arab population in the civil service, which was published by the Civil Service Commission in June of this year, indicates that of 3,763 employees in the courts administration only 119 are Arabs—3.16 percent of all employees. Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute nearly 20% of the overall population.
The use of tokenistic arguments to defend Israel’s violations is an outstanding feature in the rhetoric of Hillel members. In a recent article by Matthew Jacobs, he calls C-SJP’s reference to Israel as an apartheid state an “antiquated label.” In fact, the 2004 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Israel and the Occupied Territories stated that the Israeli government had done “little to reduce institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against the country's Arab citizens.” Continued land confiscation, home and village demolitions, institutionalized social, legal, and economic discrimination facing Palestinian citizens of Israel is an added face of Israel’s Apartheid system and occupation of Palestine.
Israel’s policies are an outdated form of colonialism. Fortunately, the international community is becoming more outspoken in its support for the indigenous Palestinian population. The international outrage caused by Israel’s attack on Gaza has garnered extensive global support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. People are becoming more aware of the discrimination Palestinian inside Israel face, especially after the passing of two laws by the Israeli Knesset that target its Palestinian population: The Nakba Law and the Admission Committee Law. We call on Hillel groups to join us in spreading awareness and truth surrounding this issue rather than defending colonial occupation and apartheid.
Alaa Milbes is a student in Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Dina Zbeidy is a student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the department of anthropology. She is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. This article first appeared in the Columbia Spectator.