Back in 1983, the Board of Regents at the University of Michigan voted to divest the University’s financial interests in “the system of Apartheid and the oppressive practices of” South Africa. In being one of the first institutions to end its financial connections to South Africa and companies doing business with it, Michigan pioneered the anti-Apartheid divestment movement that swept the nation. In the years following, over 100 Universities followed suit, eventually resulting in Congress, which had for the past 40 years legitimized the apartheid government, finally passing an anti-Apartheid bill in 1986, severing their ties.
Cradled with numerous student organizations and leaders, Ann Arbor continues to offer incoming students a unique progressive platform geared towards social change. From anti-sweatshop labor to civil rights, movements on this campus continue to inspire critical engagement of a troubling status quo, while delivering hundreds of well-rounded graduates into the real world.
With the abundance of student organizations on this campus, you, as incoming freshman, have great prospects afforded to you. In 1979, an incoming class, just like yours, was given these same opportunities and they took advantage of them. They turned a castle in the sky, the seemingly impossible task of ending decades of Congressional and complacent public support of South Africa’s Apartheid regime, into a reality. In the last month of their graduating year, their regents, with a 6-2 vote, divested from South Africa.
Today, an almost identical movement is being shaped at the University of Michigan. A growing number of conscientious students are demanding that the University divest their financial interests from Israel. This movement has turned many heads recently, with public support from anti-Apartheid activist and South African Jewish leader Ronnie Kasrils, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In an article published in July, Tutu proclaimed, “If Apartheid ended, so can the [Israeli] occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction.”
Kasrils and Tutu, as well as Nelson Mandela and countless other South Africans, have all noted the uncanny resemblance of Israel’s occupation of Palestine to South Africa’s Apartheid. The system of de facto and de jure racial segregation that officially shaped South Africa’s political and social structure throughout most of the 20th century was defined by the delineation of one race from another in the domestic policies of the state. Blacks were refused the right to vote, prohibited from most public political, economic and social sectors and subjugated to a barrage of stringent laws and regulations; all with the intent of maintaining white domination while extending racial separation.
While there are numerous distinctions between the South African Apartheid and Israel’s, the defining characteristics are prevalent in both. It should be noted here that Apartheid is not the only reason the University should divest from Israel (surely we cannot ignore the defiance of international law and human rights, making Israel the most frequent violator of UN resolutions).
This movement is confronted by a wave of skepticism, mostly from American Jewish organizations, denying the comparison. However, these cries lack factual basis, avoid addressing the defining characteristics of Israeli Apartheid, or imply racial inferiority in their vilification of the Palestinian people.
The most common argument that attempts to differentiate between Israeli policies and those of the South African Apartheid government is that the former is a democracy whereas the latter denied blacks the right to vote. This argument holds no weight, as while it is true that Israel’s Arab citizens do have the right to vote, 3.6 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza live under Israeli jurisdiction, yet are denied this right, in what is effectively “taxation without representation.”
The previous argument is one of many that attempt to support Israel’s discriminatory socio-economic and political structure by avoiding addressing those Apartheid policies that clearly differentiate between Jews and non-Jews. From an international perspective, where the borders are recognized as those in 1948, there are two degrees of Apartheid.
Within the borders, Israeli laws stratify ethnic groups to the disadvantage of Arab citizens. To ensure a demographic majority within the voting citizenry, Israel allows only the immigration of Jews to the state, excluding even the ethnically cleansed indigenous population from reentering. Meanwhile, they tokenize the maintained 20 percent Arab citizenry in order to waive a banner of democracy, despite their refusal to allow equal protection and rights of all citizens under the law, a fundamental principle of any democracy. The second degree of Apartheid is more clearly seen, in the Occupied Territories. Here, through a systematic expulsion of Palestinians, expropriation of land, house demolitions and construction of Jewish-only settlements and roads, the Palestinian population has been isolated into little cantons, identical to the Bantustans of Apartheid South Africa in attempts to strip them of their political identity. Just as the 10 “homelands” of South Africa were given nominal self-determination, so too were the Palestinians within their Bantustans.
From an Israeli perspective, official governmental maps delineate the borders of the state as including the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, which the international community rejects. This signifies an Israeli recognition of the fact that they are controlling the land and the 4.6 million Palestinians within their borders, denying more than 80 percent of them the right to vote and freedom to move. Somehow we are expected to ignore these facts with unqualified assertions of Israeli democracy, which is often used to justify Israeli actions no matter how egregious.
On top of this, Israeli claims that they are fighting a war on terrorism or ensuring their national security detract attention from the real problem, being the domination of one group (the Jews) over another (the Palestinians). These assertions show an uncanny resemblance to the same rhetoric that was used by the white, racist Apartheid government of South Africa in their attempts to maintain power. In both cases, the arguments attempt to demonize an entire native population by using guilt by association. They make generalizations about a whole group based on the actions of minority extremist. As the South African example has taught us, nothing can justify Apartheid or excuse inequality along ethno-religious lines for the sake of religious or racial ultra-nationalism of one sector of the population.
The facts show clearly and undeniably that Israel’s political dynamics have resulted in a segregation and separation of ethnic and religious classes, and a subjugation of non-Jews to both an internal and settler colonization. Until we tackle this problem, the Palestinian people, who have proven over the past 54 years to be resilient in the face of oppression and injustice, will continue their struggle, and violence will continue to drain the region.
The question that faced the class of 1983, and remains for you is whether or not you, as students, would like to help change the world. In 1979, this was no question for the incoming class, as their resounding conviction upended the South African apartheid regime. It is up to you to continue the U’s traditions through enforcing our fundamental values of freedom and equality in our financial portfolio, and urging our regents to divest from Israeli apartheid.
Kiblawi is President of Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Co-Chair of the Minority Affairs Commission and Co-Founder of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.