2020-2021 Vanderbilt University CAMERA Fellow Toby Irenstein

On February 9, 2021, the University of California Irvine (UCI) student government passed a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution against Israel in a vote of 19-3. The resolution touted the libel-filled reporting of the Israeli NGO B’tselem, which makes use of demonstrably false terms such as “apartheid” and “Jewish supremacy” to describe Israeli actions.

The resolution itself is antisemitic, as the BDS movement runs afoul of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which includes “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” as one tenet of antisemitism. But perhaps the most egregious passage from the resolution states, “Israeli apartheid is highlighted in four different categories: land, citizenship, freedom of movement, and political participation.”

Not only is this statement a lie, but it also distorts a complex geopolitical conflict and normalizes blatantly antisemitic rhetoric. It’s time to combat the myth that Israel is an apartheid state — on each campus.


“Apartheid” land policies indicate a formal process of segregation and discrimination of land on the basis of unchangeable characteristics. The most infamous example is South Africa, which discriminated legally, politically, socially and economically against non-white population members. Many individuals wrongly characterize Israelis and Palestinians’ dispute over Jerusalem, for example, into a black-and-white framework that cannot capture the complex geopolitics that created the situation. By using the inaccurate catch-all of “apartheid,” these critics delegitimize the state of Israel.

The difference in land allocation between Israelis and Palestinians is a consequence of the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to take yes for an answer. The Palestinian Authority (PA), the leaders of the majority of West Bank Palestinians, and Hamas, the leaders in Gaza, have repeatedly rejected any and all peace plans that exchange land for peace. Palestinian leaders rejected the 1947 United Nations partition plan, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s plan at Camp David in 2000, and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008.


Those who claim that Israel practices apartheid citizenship requirements base their argument on the fact that Israel extends citizenship to any Jew seeking refuge in the state of Israel. By doing so, critics claim, Israel discriminates against others, such as Palestinians living in the West Bank who may wish to inhabit the same land. But many Palestinians in East Jerusalem refused citizenship when offered because they disagreed with Israel’s right to exist. What’s more, if Israel issued a Palestinian carte blanche “right of return,” it would effectively dissolve the Jewish state, a topic that CAMERA has covered extensively.

Israel’s “law of return” allows Jews everywhere to easily obtain citizenship — such a law resembles that of many other nations, such as India and Pakistan. And, like most other nations, citizenship, by definition, discriminates; in a world of nation-states, there will always be some granted citizenship to any given state, while the majority of the planet’s population will not enjoy that same right. But that does not mean a country is committing the crime of apartheid.

Freedom of movement

Many point to the existence of checkpoints and crossings between Israel and Palestinian territories as proof of Palestinians’ unfair and unjustified lack of free movement. But there is a crucial distinction to make between crossings and checkpoints:

Crossings exist on the boundaries between the West Bank and Israel (and Gaza and Israel), and they delineate areas of Israeli control and those in which the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas, are in power. They are similar to the postings on the border between two nations. Checkpoints exist as well, but those are for heightened security environments, not merely for border crossings. Crossings and checkpoints differ in their level of security, amount of time each person spends in the facility and the stated goals of the Israeli government in their operation.

Security measures to counter terrorism and weapons transportations are not mutually exclusive with Palestinians’ freedom of movement. In fact, “in 2013, there were over 10.9 million entries at all crossings combined. This figure has been rising steadily since 2010, with an 18.3% annual increase from 2012,” says the head of crossings of the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

To equate security checkpoints with an apartheid system is to turn a blind eye to historical context. The number of checkpoints across Israel has drastically decreased over time and varies based on the situation and threat to Israeli citizens’ security (There were 40 original checkpoints created in 2006 but now 13 active checkpoints). These security measures are part of Israel’s right to maintain the security of its citizens. According to a former IDF spokesperson for the Judea and Samaria Division, Israel’s security is currently relatively stable due to the existence of these checkpoints, especially compared to the height of the Second Intifada in 2002, when 47 terror attacks from the West Bank and Gaza left thousands of Israeli civilians dead. Israel has continually reported attempts at illegal entry or weapons smuggling from the West Bank to Israel, thus justifying the crossings and checkpoints as avenues of protection. As a result, equating security precautions with apartheid grossly mischaracterizes the Israeli government’s intentions.

Political participation

Palestinian activists point to the lack of Palestinian participation in Israeli government as supposed proof of apartheid. But these critics ignore that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas control their respective jurisdictions; equating a separation of politics with “apartheid” indicates either deceptive malice or colossal ignorance.

Israel ensures all of its citizens equal opportunity to participate in its political system. Arab leaders sit on the supreme court and craft Israeli law. But for those in the West Bank and Gaza, political participation is limited to the PA and Hamas-led governmental agencies. The PA has scheduled an election for May 22, 2021, and Palestinians will be able to voice their political will in their own jurisdictions. This separation of power creates a lose-lose situation for Israel; should Israel allow Palestinians in those territories to become involved in Israel’s political processes, they would surely face accusations of “occupation” and “abuse of power,” but by allowing these leaders to self-determine, Palestinian leadership can divert funds from international organizations away from supporting its citizens and towards rewarding terror against Israelis.

Ironically, the UCI resolution maintains that the resolution “is in no way related to Judaism, we acknowledge and condemn the rising antisemitism and stand in full solidarity with Jewish communities across campus, the nation, and the world.” But the student government fails to appreciate that striking at one integral aspect of the Jewish identity and equating it with racism, settler-colonialism and “apartheid” is antisemitic, according to the IHRA definition.

The IHRA definition explains that antisemitism includes “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Claiming that all Israelis are settlers, colonizers or racists denies our historic link to the Jewish State and plants seeds of anti-Zionist beliefs that can quickly turn to antisemitic thoughts and actions.

College campuses around the world have fallen victim to spreading antisemitic falsehoods about Israel — just witness the apartheid weeks at places like Yale, Columbia, Rutgers and Brown. Luckily, there are steps that student governments, administrations and universities can take to prevent the seepage of antisemitism into their legislation and messaging. The IHRA definition, which is gaining traction at universities, clubs and governments worldwide, is an incredibly productive tool in educating and informing individuals about what constitutes antisemitism.

At NYU, for example, when Jewish students complained of an atmosphere of discrimination at the hands of SJP (the group burned Israeli flags, physically harassed a Jewish student and engaged in a rampant social media account discriminating against various Zionist Jews at NYU), they reached a settlement that advocated for adopting the IHRA definition to address antisemitic voices and educate the NYU community.

The first step colleges can take in addressing the rise in antisemitism nationwide is ensuring that their campuses remain inclusive. Adopting BDS works directly against that; however, adopting the IHRA definition can be an incredible tool. We must continue to speak out and counter lies about the Jewish state wherever they appear.

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the Jewish Journal.

Contributed by 2020-2021 Vanderbilt University CAMERA Fellow Toby Irenstein.

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