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Brent Sasley

No to apartheid (but yes to discrimination)? Add to ...

A small storm has been gathering over a master's thesis on Jewish "white privilege" and victim identity awarded by the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The thesis argues that Jews have become "white" in terms of their position and power within North America - that is, they're no longer suppressed and victimized, but rather privileged and powerful.

Despite this, they continue to portray themselves as victims, primarily through the industry of Holocaust education, which, in turn, is used to conceal and justify Zionist and Israeli policies of repression and dispossession toward the Palestinians.

There are many conceptual, methodological and empirical flaws and gaps in the thesis, titled The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, and written by Jennifer Peto. As a piece of scholarship, which requires specific standards to be met, it's very poor; as a polemic, which requires only that a piece sound convincing, it's well done.

One of the problems is the use of "apartheid" to describe the Israeli state and its policies toward the Palestinians. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid refers to "inhumane acts" similar to other terrible crimes, including systematic murder, rape, enslavement and deportation.

Ms. Peto's definition is weak, underdeveloped and not well applied. For the most part, the term is defined according to Israeli actions (which any scholars should immediately flag, as one can't explain the cause by reference to the outcome) and constituted of Israeli security measures, such as the blockade of Gaza and the separation fence within Israel and in parts of the West Bank.

As a state, Israel practises - consciously or not - discrimination, not only toward its Palestinian citizens but also its foreign workers and other communities of Jews, such as Ethiopians. Any objective reading of, say, Israel's citizenship laws (which Ms. Peto correctly identifies as evidence), its dispersion of funds for socio-economic development and its rules regarding military service indicate a clear discrimination against Palestinians.

The problem is that such discrimination is practised in virtually every state in the world. Every country has a hegemonic identity, and a group associated with it, which discriminates against those not of that identity. Such "victimized" groups include aboriginals in Canada, Turks in Germany, Christians in Egypt, Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Muslims in France, Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Syria and Uyghurs in China. The levels and types of discrimination vary, but it's discrimination all the same.

Like the terms "genocide," "war criminal" and "human-rights violations," "apartheid" has become banal and meaningless because it's used by groups (and their supporters) promoting victimhood and efforts to overturn the status quo and usher in changed political, social, economic and cultural conditions. The terms are used to describe and explain anything and everything.

This is unfortunate, because without clear definitions and applications of them, we can't deal effectively with such crimes. Promoters of apartheid must be dealt with differently - with different incentives and disincentives for behavioural change - than promoters of discrimination.

There are different avenues open to victims of the different policies: Those discriminated against can appeal to domestic or international judicial systems, or take to the streets in protest. Those subject to apartheid have neither option available to them.

We need to be more aware of how we construct and use terms and, if they're to have any helpful meanings allowing us to be objective in how we apply them, we need to avoid their overuse. The Peto thesis is, unfortunately, symptomatic of a trend all too common in discussions of conflict - not just the Israeli-Palestinian one, but others as well. Otherwise, we risk establishing a system of banal terms that encompass different levels of crime requiring different reactions and tools for dealing effectively with them but that lead to a "one size fits all" reaction.

Brent Sasley is a Canadian-born professor of Middle East politics at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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