Banning IAW — A Reply to David Matas

Banning Israel apartheid weeks at universities, A Reply to David Matas, Senior Legal Counsel, B’nai Brith

By Howard S. Davidson

“If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defence, February 2010

“There is no apartheid in Israel,” writes David Matas, senior legal counsel for B’nai Brith. Those who claim otherwise are propagandists, anti-Semites and their fellow travelers who organize events like Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) on campuses in order to advance a malicious “fantasy” contrived to vilify Israel and intimidate Jewish students.

Last year, attempts to ban IAW were rebuked when university presidents asserted the right of students to organize IAWs as long as these events did not violate university policy on maintaining a respectful environment on campuses. Following IAW at the University of Manitoba, President David Barnard reported to the university’s Board of Governors that IAW proceeded without incident. Nonetheless, Matas insists that student forums on Israel and apartheid are intended to foster anti-Semitism and must be banned.

In a presentation to the Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba, on 21 October 2010, subsequently published by the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties [1], Matas argues that the “charge of apartheid against Israel is one of a barrage of anti-Zionist accusations levied against Israel. Anti-Zionism by definition is rejection of the existence of the Jewish state. That rejection is the denial of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people.” He goes on to state, “The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is connected to anti-Semitism both in substance and in form.”

These are serious accusations made in defence of a dangerous undertaking. If they are false, they represent a threat to a democratic society that cherishes freedom of expression and the right to peaceful dissent. The matter comes down to this: Is discussion of Israel and apartheid a legitimate topic of political and academic discourse or is it, as Matas claims, a “fantasy” perpetuated to incite hatred against  Israel? For Matas Israel and the Jewish people are one, therefore, any unfounded criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.

Given the gravity of his argument and his rich legal experience, one should expect a thoughtful presentation of his position. Instead, he offers up a ruse: hiding from view the legitimate discourse on Israel and apartheid.  In fact, far from being a malicious “fantasy,” the subject is a matter of discussion and grave concern for Israeli leaders and academics in and outside Israel.

Because apartheid regimes have proven to be untenable, to say nothing of immoral, the threat of becoming an apartheid state invites disaster. Oren Yiftachel, professor of Political Geography, Ben Gurion University, has called this “creeping apartheid.”

“The [Gaza] disengagement has indeed made a significant difference to the political geography of Israel/Palestine, but a close examination reveals not a crossing of the watershed toward ending Israeli colonialism in favour of a two state solution but, rather, an Israeli policy of  ‘oppressive consolidation,’ a ‘politics of suspension,’ and a perpetual probability of mutual violence. These have combined to create a political geographic order best described as ‘creeping apartheid.'” [2]

Israel’s current minister of defence and former prime minister, Ehud Barak, has warned Israelis, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic…. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” [3]

Barak’s fears were also expressed by Israel’s  previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert: “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.” [4]

This view was stated by John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Distinguished Service Professor, Political Science, University of Chicago. Mearsheimer co-authored with Stephen Walt The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. I am certain that Matas vehemently disagree with Mearsheimer’s analysis of the lobby; however, he cannot paint Mearsheimer as an anti-Zionist, anti-Semite, or someone seeking to incite intimidation and hatred. If Matas read reviews of The Israel Lobby in Foreign Affairs (e.g., L. Carl Brown, September/October 2006) or Dmitri K. Simes’ article in the National Interest [5], he knows about Mearsheimer’s pro-Israeli credentials. Mearsheimer wrote in the American Conservative:

“…there is not going to be a two-state solution. Gaza and the West Bank will become part of a greater Israel, which will be an apartheid state bearing a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa. Israelis and their American supporters invariably bristle at this comparison, but that is the future if they create a greater Israel while denying full political rights to an Arab population that will soon outnumber the Jewish population in the entirety of the land.” [6]

Others claim that Israel has already become an apartheid state, the position taken by organizers of Israel Apartheid Week and shared by Shulamit Aloni, former Israeli Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin. Aloni wrote, “The US Jewish Establishment’s onslaught on former President Jimmy Carter is based on him daring to tell the truth which is known to all: through its army, the government of Israel practises a brutal form of Apartheid in the territory it occupies.” [7]

I could quote others who agree. For the sake of brevity I’ll leave it with this comment by Baruch Kimmerling (deceased), formerly Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto and George S. Wise Professor of Sociology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem:

“… Israel ceased being a true democratic state and became a Herrenvolk democracy. This term, coined to describe South Africa under Apartheid, describes a regime in which one group of its subjects (the citizens) enjoys full rights and another group (the non-citizens) enjoys none. The laws of Israel have become the laws of a master people and the morality that of lords of the land.” [8]

A search of the University of Manitoba library catalogue brings up 17 titles on Israel and apartheid. It is reasonable to assume this would be true of other university libraries. Thus, students are free to research the subject but presidents are being asked to prevent students from organizing discussions on the topic. Or would Matas seek to have these books removed from the libraries on the ground that they are not on a legitimate topic but are propagating a malicious fantasy?

In a democracy Matas is welcomed to express a different opinion (a freedom he would deny to others).  That said, he should think twice about claiming that those who believe apartheid in Israel is a clear and present danger are nothing more than anti-Semites.

The only evidence he offers to prove there is no apartheid in Israel is to dismiss any comparison with South African apartheid. As we have seen in the statements quoted here, the South African comparison is frighteningly valid.

Matas contrives his proof by defining apartheid in the narrowest possible terms (i.e., “the denationalization of blacks”). Since Palestinians have not been denationalized there is no apartheid. He neglects to mention a more authoritative definition of apartheid than his own, one provided by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The ICC defined 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.” [9]  Do South Africans think this describes the situation in the occupied territories?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu thinks it does. Other leading South Africans expressing the same opinion are Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Mahmood Mamdani, and Barney Pityana. It is the conclusion of a report on Israel’s practices in the occupied territories by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, South Africa’s statutory research agency:

“[D]iscriminatory treatment cannot be explained or excused on grounds of citizenship, both because it goes beyond what is permitted by ICERD [The Apartheid Convention] and because certain provisions in Israeli civil and military law provide that Jews present in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] who are not citizens of Israel also enjoy privileges conferred on Jewish-Israeli citizens in the OPT by virtue of being Jews. Consequently, this study finds that the State of Israel exercises control in the OPT with the purpose of maintaining a system of domination by Jews over Palestinians and that this system constitutes a breach of the prohibition of apartheid.” [10]

Stating that Israel is (or is becoming) an apartheid state names an impending/horrific state-of-affairs that calls for the immediate end of occupation and respect for Palestinians’ right for self-determination. It is clear from the range of statements cited here that an extensive discourse has emerged on Israel and apartheid.

It is my hope you will become familiar with this discourse and use that knowledge to challenge the ruse being used to convince university presidents to ban Israel Apartheid Week. Freedom of expression and the tradition of dissent make up the life blood of a democratic society.

Howard S. Davidson is Associate Professor, Extended Education, University of Manitoba and member of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada). He can be reached at ijvwinnipeg [at]



1. The article by David Matas my be seen at

2. Yiftachel, O. ( 2005). Neither two states nor one: The disengagement and “Creeping Apartheid” in Israel/Palestine. The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe Vol. 8, No 3, 125-129.  Retrieved 16 November 2010

3. Quoted in “Barak: make peace with Palestinians or face apartheid,” Guardian, 03 February 2010. Retrieved 16 November 2010.

4. Quoted in “The two state solution, or Israel is done for,” Haaretz, 09 November 2007. Retrieved 17 November 2010.

5. Simes, D. K. (2006).  Unrealists. The National Interest, 84(Summer),  pp. 5 – 10.

6. Mearsheimer, J.  (01 August 2010). Sinking Ship. American Conservative. Retrieved 17 November 2010.

7.  Article appearing in Yediot Acharonot, cited and translated from Hebrew in The Scoop, from Middle East News. Retrieved 15 December 2010 Service

8. Kimmerling, B. (2006). Politicide: The real legacy of Ariel Sharon. London: Verso, p. 39.

9.  Quoted from the Wikipedia web page. Retrieved 24 December 2010.

10.  Middle East Project of the Democracy and Governance Programme, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. (May 2009). Occupation, colonialism, Apartheid? A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law, p. 22 . Retrieved 16 November 2010