May 05, 2017
Finally the winds are changing. A report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (which comprises 18 Arab states) accusing Israel of being an “apartheid state” and racially discriminating against the Palestinian people, was removed from the Commission’s website. The UN spokesman explained that “the report as it stands does not reflect the views of the Secretary-General”. The "apartheid state" crusade has attracted the attention of the US senate which denounced the "singular focus" of the organization on Israel.
While the UN may adopt a more balanced approach in the future, a look at the genesis of the apartheid analogy is informative. When pro-Palestinian activists had toyed with the idea of linking Israel with South Africa under the apartheid regime, Ben Gurion University (BGU) scholars actually provided the academic legitimacy to the apartheid analogy.
Oren Yiftachel, a professor in the Geography Department at BGU is arguably the intellectual architect of the academic analogy. In 2002 Yiftachel submitted a paper to Political Geography which described Israel as "a state dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group." He concluded that society like this "cannot be classified as democracies in a substantive sense". Much to his surprise, his paper was returned unopened with an attached explanatory note that Political Geography could not accept a submission from Israel. After a lengthy discussion, the journal accepted the paper on the condition that Yiftachel makes "substantial revisions" to include a comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa. Yiftachel agreed. Since then he is riding on his "apartheid" scholarship to considerable fame in the political geography community. Michael C. Hudson, the former director of the notoriously anti-Israel Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Georgetown University acknowledged Yiftachel's pivotal role and awarded him a medal in 2012.
Neve Gordon a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at BGU, is another academic popularizer of the "apartheid" analogy. Gordon, a veteran political activist started his career as the director of the Physicians for Human Rights – Israel which was denounced by the Israeli Medical Association. In 2004, while a visiting scholar at the notoriously anti-Israel Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley, which provided him with the necessary resources to write, he worked on the book Israel Occupation. In Gordon's reading, there was only a small difference between Israel and apartheid South Africa, “that in the West Bank no legislation was introduced to support this practice, and no official government decision was taken to put such legislation into effect”. Gordon's logic prompted him to urge a boycott of Israel in an article in the LA Times in 2009 where he wrote “The most accurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state.”
Idan Landau of the Foreign Literature & Linguistics Department at BGU has written in 2007 on the purpose of the boycott. He wrote, “One of the important considerations is whether the boycott does not act as a double-edged sword, in that it creates hostility and alienation among those Israeli academics who also oppose the occupation, and even actively participate in protest against it, yet deny the legitimacy of the academic boycott. Whether or not they are right or wrong, the very fact that activating the boycott creates a wedge between them and potential partners in the struggle outside Israel is already a question of the effectiveness of an academic boycott… After stripping off the layers of insult, victimization, fury and distraction, there is nothing left to the opponents of the boycott to argue with the principle of the moral validity of the academic boycott and sanctions against the state of Israel and the apartheid regime it imposed in the territories.”
Sarai Aharoni from the BGU Gender Studies Program, co-authored a paper in 2015 supporting a partial boycott of Israel. She wrote: “the BDS movement has also relied heavily on the language of freedom and justice, framing the longstanding Israeli occupation as yet another manifestation of a Zionist colonial regime that has transformed over time into an institutionalized Apartheid system based on national and ethnic discrimination.” For her, however, “boycott is a double-edged sword”, because BDS will effectively discourage international scholars from collaborating with Israeli scholars who oppose the Israeli policies. Such scholars “are gradually isolated and silenced within Israeli academia.” She also confirmed that “Supporters of an academic and cultural boycott point out the complicity of Israeli academic institutions with the occupation apparatus. This is of course true in the economic sense.”
In the face of such "engaged scholarship" the leadership of BGU has been strangely silent. When the Council of Higher Education tried to force BGU to reign in its activist faculty and warned to close the Department of Politics and Government, the president of the university and the dean of social science called upon the international academic community to mobilize in protest.
BGU and the other Israeli universities need to be aware of the role played by radical scholars in legitimizing the "Israel-as-an-apartheid-state" analogy that serves as an intellectual justification for BDS. The leaders of the BDS movement welcome these scholars because they deflect accusations of anti-Semitism. In this sense, Yiftachel, Gordon, and others serve as the contemporary reincarnation of Lenin's "useful idiots."