Comparing Israel to the purely evil and racist regime of apartheid South Africa is deeply offensive to Israelis and all those who seek a genuine resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Brown Students for Justice in Palestine publicized this analogy last week with a banner on the Main Green that read, "Do you want your school invested in apartheid?" The best defense against such hostile and offensive rhetoric is the truth.
The Israel-apartheid comparison holds very little truth. This analogy is guided by a misunderstanding of the unique aspects of the Israel-Palestine relationship. Furthermore, it is counterproductive, serving only to polarize both sides in this heated conflict.
To Israel and its supporters, characterizing Israel as an apartheid state is perceived as an attempt to delegitimize and vilify it. Because delegitimizing Israel alienates Israeli supporters, Brown Students for Justice in Palestine is not serving the interests of Palestinians. They are not making Israeli supporters more amenable to compromise, cooperation or peace.
Instead, this comparison leads to more aggressive Israeli policies and more rigid support for Israel. Characterizing Israel as an apartheid state prevents any goodwill negotiations between the two sides. It obliterates any potential middle ground and creates a false choice between Israel and Palestine. This unfair polarization is intellectually dishonest and counterproductive.
Only the purest ideologue would support every Israeli policy related to the treatment of Palestinians. But it is important to understand the source of Israel's policy flaws. Israel has not erred simply out of malice or hatred for Palestinians. Rather, Israel's occasional use of excess force is caused by a belief that Israel faces a hostile world. This belief is not merely irrational paranoia but is grounded in reality and proven by frequent missile and suicide bomb attacks against Israel. If Israelis felt more secure in the belief that pro-Palestinian groups are not looking to undermine their state, then they would be more amenable to peaceful compromise and less willing to resort to military force. Classifying Israel as an apartheid state will not increase the chance of peace in the region, nor will it make Israel less likely to deploy its army. This offensive rhetoric is therefore counterproductive if the main goal is for justice and dignity for all the people of the Middle East.
Not only is this Israel-apartheid analogy counterproductive, but it is also inaccurate. Brown Students for Justice in Palestine wants people to associate the Israeli state with the racist apartheid state that once existed in South Africa. But the Israel-Palestine situation is by no means comparable to the situation faced by black Africans under the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the case of South Africa under apartheid, there was little to no moral ambiguity. The apartheid state was exclusively motivated by racist ideology. This was not a mutual conflict where both sides deserved blame, nor was it a situation in which both sides had legitimate demands. The racist and oppressive wishes of the apartheid government did not deserve any recognition.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is far more complex than the case of apartheid South Africa. While whites in South Africa subdued a land that they had no connection to, Israelis have a legitimate claim to their ancestral homeland. The apartheid state of South Africa was a product of white colonization and greed. The Israeli state is the product of a long-oppressed people seeking to reclaim their land and gain autonomy.
The South African forces that resisted apartheid rule were also different from the current forces of resistance to Israel. Black South Africans were merely attempting to reclaim their land, dignity, autonomy and right to self-determination. Not all of the forces opposed to Israel have the noble and pure intentions that the South African resistance did.
Many of those who resist Israel deserve international condemnation, not respect. Some of Israel's foes are violent anti-Semites who routinely target citizens. These terrorists are funded by regional despots who demonize Jews to cover up their own corruption and oppression.
Not all of Israel's foes are anti-Semitic. Many are peace-loving, tolerant people who only want self-determination for the Palestinian people. It is wrong to portray Israel's critics as a uniform group of violent terrorists. But it is equally wrong to portray these critics as a uniform group of moderates who only care about justice for the Palestinians and do not have any ulterior motives. If Brown Students for Justice in Palestine thinks that it is only supporting a noble struggle for self-determination, it is sorely mistaken. In reality, the anti-Israel coalition is composed of both noble and sinister forces and has both admirable and deplorable agendas. It is therefore inaccurate to compare the forces of resistance in South Africa to the forces of resistance in Israel.
When applied correctly, historical analogies can shed light on contemporary struggles. When applied incorrectly, they distort reality and are counterproductive. The Israel-apartheid analogy is one such false analogy that incorrectly applies lessons of the past to prevent progress in the future.
Oliver Rosenbloom '13 is a history concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be reached at oliver_rosenbloom(at)brown.edu.