I’ve always been curious whether certain words create their own power or simply draw upon the power of that which they describe. The term “Holocaust,” which starts with soft vowels implying vastness and ends with knife-sharp consonants, seems like it would be evocative regardless of what it describes. Yet once this term came into general use to describe the Nazi’s extermination of European Jewry, it drew upon the massiveness of that event, eventually pushing out other terms (some foreign like “Shoah,” some euphemistic such as “Final Solution” – a simple phrase which itself can mean only one thing to today’s ears) to become synonymous with history’s most horrific crime.
Fights over the term simply demonstrate its unique power to move people emotionally. As horrific, vast and mind-numbing as other historic mass murders have been (such as the Armenian genocide, which many see as an historic “warm up” for other 20th century ethnic exterminations), there is a reason we describe these as the “Armenian Holocaust,” the “Rwandan Holocaust,” etc., rather than describing the Shoah as the “Armenian genocide of the Jews.”
“Apartheid,” meaning “seperateness”, resonates as a word, even to those unfamiliar with the Dutch dialect used by South Africa’s white Afrikaans population, implying as it does the English terms “Apart” and “Hate.” And yet the ugliness of the system it describes, a form of mass racial discrimination masquerading under formal legalism, certainly contributes to this term becoming synonymous with bigotry as state policy.
As with the term “Holocaust,” there are legitimate fights over whether the term “Apartheid” belongs to the world, or just to those who experienced the original phenomenon. Anyone looking over the past century will see enough political murder and racism to shake their faith in humanity. But are all murders of any scale a “Holocaust,” and is all institutionalized bigotry a variant on “Apartheid?” Many (but by no means all) Jews and South Africans would argue that by allowing these terms to be used to describe anything remotely smacking of large-scale killing or racism, one is not universalizing them but draining them of any meaning whatsoever.
In the cauldron of debate over the Middle East, arguments over the use or misuse of these words are particularly acute. While some attempts have been made to describe the Palestinian experience as a new “Holocaust,” this runs into a problem when you realize that, unlike other historic genocides, the Palestinian population has skyrocketed since Israel’s birth (especially in the disputed/occupied territories that are supposed to be serving as stand-ins for Hitler’s concentration camps).
“Apartheid” is by far the more frequent term of abuse hurled at the Jewish state for its alleged “crimes.” Thus the barrier built to stop mass bombing campaigns originating from the West Bank is not a fence, a wall or even “the New Berlin Wall,” but the “Apartheid Wall.” Jimmy Carter’s book “Peace Not Apartheid” has basically been translated to the single phrase: “Jimmy Carter says Israel is an Apartheid State,” (even if the author himself has tried to weasel out of the implication of his chosen title).
Web sites such as It Is Apartheid are dedicated solely to the purpose of making Israel synonymous with Apartheid South Africa (especially in the mind of people too young to remember the original), with BDS itself simply a component of a wider “Apartheid Strategy” whose practitioners believe that by replacing the term “Israel” with “Apartheid Israel” in all of their communication and correspondence they can, over time, turn their preferred version of reality into common wisdom.
But who gets to draw boundaries around where the term “Apartheid” is used, even in debate over the Middle East? Some supporters of Israel have responded to the “Israel Apartheid” slur by charging Israel’s accusers of practicing, supporting or ignoring crimes of “Gender Apartheid,” “Sexual Apartheid” and “Religious Apartheid” within the wider Arab world. And unlike some of the more fanciful charges against the Jewish state, repression of women, homosexuals and religious minorities by Israel’s neighbors is undisputable.
But who gets to decide if they are all variations on “Apartheid?” If enough people started using the phrase “Apartheid Saudi Arabia,” “Apartheid Syria” or “Apartheid Gaza” in their daily communication, does that legitimize an accusation masquerading as a descriptive phrase (a la “Apartheid Israel”)?
This is why the involvement of South Africa and South Africans in this debate is so significant. Absent the ability to characterize the Middle East conflict in Apartheid terms, it becomes a less charged (and, as an aside, potentially more solvable) political dispute. That being the case, is it as clear as BDS advocates would like everyone to believe that South Africans who participated in the fight against the original Apartheid see the Arab-Israel conflict in the same terms as their own struggle?