On Saturday I was part of a teach-in at the University of Pennsylvania on recent developments in the Israel-Palestine conflict organized by several Philadelphia peace groups. Another participant was to be Ian Lustick, a realist scholar who did an important paper on Israel’s crisis two years back.
When I got to the teach-in, I learned that Lustick had pulled out. He sent me and other participants an email, addressed "Dear All," objecting to the title of the event: "Teach-In: Israeli Apartheid 2010." Someone read it aloud at the event:
“I was not asked to speak about the apartheid question in relationship to Israel or the value of the South Africa analogy. I was asked to speak on US policy and to provide a snapshot of current Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israel in comparison to South Africa and other countries is a topic of my current research. I cannot prejudge the questions involved and do not wish to be publicized as supporting a position of equivalence between Israel and South Africa— a position I take very seriously. I would not have agreed to participated in the event if I had known how it would be characterized.”
Lustick said that he would “love” to participate if the event were titled Israeli Apartheid? And though he deeply regretted disappointing us, he would be on campus that day during the teach in at such and such an address.
We then discussed Lustick’s decision.
Someone said that apartheid was the "a-word," and triggered a lot of negative responses. "It’s shameful for people to feel themselves associated with it. And people don’t get the intensity of that," said a woman from a progressive synagogue. A couple of people said that things are worse in the West Bank than they were in South Africa. Said one, “Even at the worst, people in South Africa could walk on the streets.” Said another, “We don’t want to shy away from that word."
Myself, I avoid the term, but–not to prejudge anything– apartheid certainly is a reasonable comparison. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both say the West Bank is an apartheid system, and you’d think they ought to know. On my first visit to the West Bank four years ago I met a South African who had lived through apartheid and said that what he was seeing was worse than apartheid. Israelis regularly use the word apartheid. Olmert and Barak said that Israel would soon face an apartheid struggle; so what if you were to start saying so right now, is that so crazy?
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies says that back in the 80s movement people were careful not to use the apartheid word lest it derail discussion, but today she finds it a helpful term: "use of the apartheid analogy (thankfully more often grounded in Israeli violations of the Convention on the Suppression & Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid than efforts at exact comparisons with South Africa…) is now commonplace, and while not uncontested is pretty much accepted in the discourse."
Yes but what discourse? Not official discourse. I wonder what the career pressures are on a scholar like Lustick to avoid any hint of association with the Palestinian-solidarity movement– what such an association would do for his standing, or aspirations. I mean, would anyone back out of an event where Israel was portrayed as a "democracy"–a questionable assertion when you consider the lack of representation in government for 20-45 percent of the population (depending on whether you count the occupation). Or imagine a panel that said that authoritarian countries were better than totalitarian ones, the old neocon line, and you were a scholar invited to sit next to Jeane Kirkpatrick. Would neocon orthodoxies have stopped a liberal scholar from taking part in a discussion? I doubt it.
We’re talking about a different orthodoxy entirely: the predominance of the Israel lobby in mainstream discourse, and the anathema in the foreign policy establishment against any terms that reflect Palestinian concerns. Whatever apartheid says about the West Bank– and it says a lot– that fact reflects disgrace on the US.