After only one semester at the Claremont Colleges, I have already noticed the polarizing rhetoric surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that exists on campus. As a Jewish student raised in a pro-Israel home, I have always known that I support Israel, but I had never been to Israel and knew little of its current politics. However, when I saw anti-Israel flyers plastered across Scripps College that falsified information about Israeli policies and called for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, I knew I had to take initiative and learn the facts.
This is why I really appreciated when the Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance brought Miyelani Pinini and Jamie Mithi to come speak about their recent trip to Israel where they went with no preconceived opinions in order to learn the facts on the ground. As two black non-Jewish South African students, they presented objective opinions about Israel and debunked the unqualified parallels between South Africa’s 46 years as an apartheid state and the so-called “Israeli apartheid state.”
It was their awareness of BDS as a prevalent campaign on their campuses and violent demonstrations from anti-Israel students that inspired their curiosity in the Israeli-Palestinian debate and their eventual trip to Israel. Following their trip, they are able to say with confidence that Israel is not an apartheid state, that there must be more education about the facts involved in this discussion, and that open conversations are a necessity. These same principles should apply to all campuses, even those here in America, where biased and discussions pollute the perception about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A self-dubbed Johannesburg student activist, Pinini targeted the first problem: defining apartheid. While many people, myself included, think they know what apartheid is, most of us do not actually understand the intensity and complexity of it.
For a country to be an apartheid state, Pinini clarified, there is a deliberate attempt by a government to oppress another group on the basis of their race. In South Africa, an apartheid state existed. There were laws literally segregating land and facilities, and others restricting education and careers for blacks. According to Mithi, this is not the case: “in the state of Israel, these laws don’t exist.”
In Ramallah, a West Bank city under the Palestinian Authority, Pinini and Mithi visited what they were told was the “refugee camp.” What was the adjective Pinini used to describe her feelings toward the area? “Gobsmacked.” In this so-called West Bank “refugee camp,” people have access to health care, education, running water and electricity; 21 years after apartheid ended in South Africa, her family still lives in slums without basic support or services. “It is disrespectful and does an injustice to my people, playing on our insecurities and our hurt, playing to something it is not.”
In South Africa, youths are heavily involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they have personal connections to the effects of apartheid. Pinini noted that “if there is an accusation of apartheid somewhere, we will stand up for them. People stood up and fought for us as we fought the grossest human rights violations under the apartheid regime. We will not—we won’t let this happen anywhere else.”
As a finalist in the World Universities Public Speaking Championship and winner in Africa, Mithi attempted to organize a debate aimed at encouraging dialogue and providing a space for everyone to have a voice. He shared that the pro-Israel student organizations immediately agreed to participate. When he invited the anti-Israel groups to participate and have an opportunity to present their side of the argument, they declined.
Mithi put it best: If South Africa is “so far away and can’t have the conversation, how do we expect the people living in [Israel] to have the right conversation?” How can we ask our politicians to have productive, civil discussions when we cannot even do it at the collegiate level? This is an age when we should all be learning, exploring, stepping out of our comfort zones, and listening.
These conversations need to happen. Between friends, in classrooms, on campuses, and in homes, these conversations need to be civil and respectful. We all need to better educate ourselves with facts, not propaganda or a brightly-colored flyer we see in front of our classroom, the validity information no one can actually confirm. It is only with proper, unbiased information that these conversations can take place, and when they do, then we can actually start to discuss negotiations and hope for peace among Israelis and Palestinians. Mithi and Pinini proved this to be true when they debunked the common misperceptions about Israel.
When we—ordinary people—begin to set an example for what we want to see in the world, only then can we truly push our leaders to make knowledgeable, righteous, and peaceful movements. Let’s stop the hateful rhetoric and biased propaganda, and instead set an example for a better future. This begins on our own college campus.
Becky Shane is a first-year at Claremont McKenna College, originally from Orange County, California intending to major in International Relations with a Human Rights, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies Sequence.