The red herring of apartheid

Language can be a strangely powerful tool. A single word may reference a whole range of cultural phenomena and inspire happiness, shock, anger and everything else in between.

This is no secret — all the great orators in history understood the importance of infusing their prose with words that resonate in the human heart as well as mind — nor is it a lost art. Anyone today serious about spreading a message knows that a careful choice of phrasing can make the difference between celebrity and obscurity.

Thus, I have no doubt that such ideas occupied the minds of those who decided on the name “Israeli Apartheid Week,” the upcoming annual series of events organized by groups opposed to the treatment of Palestinians in Israel. That’s not to suggest that IAW supporters don’t believe the analogy, but the use of an emotionally — and politically — charged word like “apartheid” was guaranteed to grab headlines, and there’s no way they didn’t see that beforehand.

Tried and true though the technique may be, I’m not comfortable with its use here — in fact, I think it’s a pretty irresponsible misappropriation of a word better left to the history books. It’s not that I don’t think that the plight of the Palestinians isn’t worthy of attention — they’ve had a pretty bad run over the past 50 some-odd years, though the issue is hardly one-sided. No, my objection lies more in the red herring that results when throwing such a contentious term into the ring.

Apartheid of course refers, in the narrow and historical sense, to the racial policies implemented in South Africa by the Nationalist Party after it came to power in the late 1940s. It was an absolutely despicable chapter of history, and the word now quite rightly conjures up thoughts and images of racism, intolerance and authoritarianism. However, in most minds it is still inextricably linked to South Africa, and here’s where the problems begin.

IAW’s goal is to raise awareness about alleged human rights abuses occurring in Israel. However, in choosing a name so rife with historical baggage, it inadvertently diverts attention away from the issue at hand and creates a meta-debate about whether the label is correct. This has, in turn, allowed IAW’s opponents to sidestep tougher questions and substitute a much easier one: Does what is occurring in Israel qualify as apartheid, per se?

This is an simple thrust to parry — of course, strictly speaking, the policies are not, and can never be, apartheid, an Afrikaans word for a phenomenon exclusive, in that specific form, to South Africa. And because the term is so closely linked with that nation, the overwhelming majority of people are willing to accept such a conclusion.

In short: by using the word apartheid, IAW allows its opponents to avoid addressing any of their actual concerns.

The same thing occurs whenever people try to attach the term “holocaust” to genocides other than that of the Jews under Nazi Germany. The allusion to that awful event is never lost no matter how completely unrelated the referenced circumstances may be, and it inevitably muddies the waters as people try and decide whether the ethnic cleansing of one group measures up to that of another — as though any genocide is better or worse than another. Whatever the intention of those importing such loaded words into the vernacular, it invariably results in a linguistic debate overshadowing the actual problem at hand.

It’s a shame, because there is a lot in the Israel-Palestine conflict worth debating. I don’t come down strongly on either side — excepting on the issue of Israel’s basic right to exist, which is to my mind a moot point — but I absolutely agree that there are some issues raised by IAW well worth addressing. However, IAW’s insistence on the use of an attention-grabbing moniker greatly diminishes the chance of a serious and sober debate taking place.

Instead, we’re left with a lot of opinions on apartheid and few on anything relevant to the Palestinian situation, to the great advantage of those who’d rather avoid a discussion at all. If those who believe that an injustice is occurring in Israel want to be heard by the world, they’d do better to tone down the shock-factor approach and start addressing their concerns head on.

Greg Sacks is a first-year law student at Robson Hall who wonders whether Curiosity will ever be arrested in connection with all those cat deaths.

1 Comment on "The red herring of apartheid"

  1. While I appreciate the point you are bringing forward I disagree that Apartheid is an inappropriate word to use. The conversation around Israel/Palestine has always been difficult. The great strength of the word Apartheid is its history. It makes it very clear to people who may not be aware of what is going on that the situation in Palestine is one of violence, racism, and oppression.

    I also disagree that no other situation can be called Apartheid because of its Afrikaans etymology. The UN made Apartheid a crime in 1973 and the ICC defined it again in 2002, after the end of South African Apartheid.

    ICC defines Apartheid as a crime against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” ( This is exactly what we find in Israel/Palestine.

    I do certainly agree that those who want to support Israel, regardless of its policies and actions, will use this word as an opportunity to side track the conversation. But this is an inevitable part of conflict. IAW is a line in the sand. It is a demand that the argument happens here and now, that the discourse is defined by those who oppose racism and oppression.

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