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Ethan Tobias '12: No apartheid here

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, don't call it a chicken. Yet this is exactly what those who constructed a makeshift wall on the Main Green last week were doing. The wall stood as a protest to both "Apartheid in the Occupied Territories" of Israel/Palestine and the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

Whatever you may think about South Africa, Israel/Palestine or the U.S. southern border, the fact is that these situations are very different. Building a wall that conflates the nuances of the three, rather than having a civilized discussion about the effects of certain policies, paints history with a broad brush. It serves to poison the discourse by making weak associations.

The fact is that while some similarities do exist — there were fences in all these places — there are more fundamental differences among these situations. One of the most important is that the U.S. and Mexico are two separate countries. The system of apartheid in South Africa worked to separate people within a single country based on race, while the fence on our southern border separates peoples living in different countries. It is internationally agreed that nations have the right to control who can cross their borders. This right is essential for protecting countries from terrorists, criminals and drug smugglers.

These two examples show how the situation is strikingly different whether the separation is between peoples in different countries or within a single country. When fences attempted to divide a unified country, as in South Africa, it made sense to protest, support sanctions and  encourage divestment. However, when fences serve to maintain existing national boundaries and provide security, as in the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, protests and divestment campaigns are misguided.

Given the importance of distinguishing between fences within a nation and fences between nations, how can we understand the situation in Israel/Palestine?
Israelis and Palestinians are very much two different peoples, with their own individual national aspirations. They differ in religion, language and culture. More importantly, they consider themselves to be separate nations. A two-state solution has majority support among both Israelis and Palestinians in polls conducted of both populations.

The leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government both support a two-state solution. They agree that any solution will be based on the pre-1967 borders, give or take a few land swaps. The groundwork for a major breakthrough is there. The international consensus has continually been for the creation of separate states for Israelis and Palestinians. The Peel Commission of 1937 recommended separate Jewish and Arab states. The United Nations in 1948 voted on a resolution establishing the creation of two separate states. Even today, leaders from all across the world, from President Obama to the Arab League, have endorsed some version of a two-state solution.

Given the overwhelming belief that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the conflict in Israel/Palestine, it is clear that the situation is much more similar to the fence separating the U.S. and Mexico than the state of affairs in apartheid South Africa.

If the students who made the comparison between apartheid and the U.S.-Mexico border really believe their own rhetoric, then they must accept that they are citizens of an apartheid state, currently dividing the U.S. and Mexico. If I believed I were living under a system of apartheid, I would make sure I was doing everything in my power to end it before I started criticizing a foreign country for doing the same thing. Anything otherwise is pure hypocrisy.

The problem with repainting history is the tendency to subsume the individual nuances of different situations. The situation in Israel/Palestine is very different from the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico or the systematic segregation along racial lines in apartheid South Africa.

You do not have to agree with everything that the U.S. or Israeli governments do, but sincere criticism and protest go a lot further than name calling and guilt by association. It is easy to write off those we disagree with as acting like "Hitler" or "Stalin," as the Tea Partiers do, but doing so is not intellectually honest. Instead, we should be debating policy respectfully. By associating the U.S. and Israel with the policy of apartheid in South Africa, those students on the Main Green chose to polarize the debate by brushing over important distinctions.

The image that the word "apartheid" brings to mind is a harsh one. Those using such loaded language must make a clear and concise argument explaining why the word applies. Conflating apartheid in South Africa with the U.S.-Mexico border and Israel/Palestine situations diminishes the suffering that millions of South Africans endured. It is an affront to them and to every self-respecting person who values historical accuracy.

Ethan Tobias '12 likes the view from this side of the Van Wickle gates. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias -at - brown.edu.




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