There is a place in the world today where people of different ethnicities are separated by concrete walls.
On one side of the wall, residents enjoy a life similar to that available in some developed European cities. On the other side of the wall most people live under constant humiliation, degradation and enforced poverty.
If this sounds somewhat familiar to the average South African citizen who has not had their head under the sand for the last fifty years, that’s because it is familiar. It is called apartheid and it exists right now in the context of Israel and Palestine.
There is no doubt that the use of the word apartheid is controversial – I do not use the term lightly and neither do the thousands of activists and students who in over 250 cities around the world are participating in the ninth annual Israeli Apartheid Week. From Aberdeen to Zurich, people are recognising that the resemblance between South Africa’s former system and Israel’s present day system is too powerful to ignore.
In many instances what Israel has created is the essence of the term apartheid: ‘separation’. Just as the NP government sought to divide people based on race and with the agenda of siphoning off key resources, so have Jewish-only Israeli settlements (which are illegal under international law) devoured Palestinian land and resources.
Both regimes justified these actions under the guise of state security. Israel and the Israeli people certainly do have a right to security, however it poses the question: how does settler colonialism increase security? And how does separating families members from one another and breadwinners from their livelihood, with an illegal separation wall, make your citizens safer?
Inside Israel the apartheid similitude continues. Even though Palestinians make up around a fifth of Israel’s population, they are treated like second-class citizens. Palestinian citizens of Israel are given separate and inferior social benefits and are made to live in separate areas where they face the threat of home demolitions. And just as the Apartheid Mixed-Marriages Act separated people, Palestinians are not allowed to marry Jewish Israelis.
Critics of the Israeli-Apartheid analogy say that Israel cannot be an apartheid state because Arabs and Jews can swim at the same beaches and sit next to each other on buses, which is true. But Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat on that bus in Alabama because her life depended on sitting next to white people.
Cosmetic equality is meaningless in a system that has segregation at its core. Palestinians, like the people of colour under the Apartheid system in South Africa, are forced to accept poorer education, higher unemployment and, most importantly, are deprived of land which is rightfully theirs. That is the association that matters.
The question is what should we as students do about it? The answer to this also lies in the legacy of this country’s struggle against Apartheid. While the NP government in South Africa was seeking the advice of their Israeli counterparts on how to manage their brand in the face of global isolation, university students here in South Africa and all over the world were at the forefront of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
The fact that we (in South Africa) now live in a society that, at least in its laws and Constitution, is a model of equality and freedom is partly due to the activism of people around the world who had the fortitude to stand up for what they believed in. There were of course those who chose not to protest against Apartheid and there were those who labelled Mandela and the ANC ‘dirty terrorists’ whose sole aim was to drive all white people into the sea.
Which side of history will we find ourselves on?