Thursday, March 22, 2007

That Word (again)

A recurring theme on this blog seems to be the extent to which the understanding of a text may hang on the interpretation of a single word, an interpretation that is likely to involve rhetorical strategy in addition to bread-and-butter semantics. Today's word is "apartheid" and its usage in referring to Israel. To some extent Jimmy Carter has had a hand in bringing this association to public consciousness with the publication of his book with the (unpunctuated) title, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid; but, as Joseph Lelyveld pointed out in reviewing this book for The New York Review, the association can be traced back (at least) to the World Conference Against Racism, which the United Nations convened in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Today the association was raised by John Dugard, special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, who happens to be a lawyer from South Africa. In reviewing Carter's book, Lelyveld felt it was important to address the question of whether or not the association is a valid one on semantic grounds. He argued that there are two interpretations of the term and then demonstrated that the interpretation behind the Durban usage (meant to invoke associations with pre-Mandela South Africa) "is relatively easy to dismiss as propaganda." The second interpretation, he argued, amounts to a side-effect of the actions of an occupying military force and is more problematic to assess:

The settlements, roads, barriers and military presence have effectively divided the West Bank into security zones or enclaves, severely limiting Palestinian passage from one zone to the next. The crushing impact on Palestinian lives and families is clear enough. The debate on whether it amounts to "apartheid" turns on whether it's to be seen as a legitimate and reversible response to the threat of terrorism across the border in Israel, or whether it's meant to be as permanent as it looks.

It is important to note that Lelyveld has invoked some pretty strong rhetoric in his descriptive language but still makes a case that the use of the word "apartheid" is debatable.

On the basis of the Reuters report by Richard Waddington, it would appear that Mr. Dugard is not interested in the semantic subtleties that Lelyveld explored, although, as a South African, his use of the phrase "deja vu" would indicate that he is leaning towards the Durban usage. However, there is a reason behind his intentions, even if they are propagandistic, and that is to use his United Nations position of authority to cast the situation in a more global context. Here is how Waddington describe it:

South African lawyer John Dugard warned Western states they would never rally support among developing nations for effective action against perceived abuses in Sudan's Darfur, Zimbabwe and Myanmar unless they tackled the plight of Palestinians.

"This places in danger the whole international human rights enterprise," he told the Council, a Geneva-based watchdog.

In a way this is "deja vu;" but it is a recollection of the rhetoric to elevate the climate crisis to global proportions. This makes for good rhetoric; but it can also inhibit local solutions with the dismissive argument that we-obviously-can't-do-anything-about-a-problem-that-big. Yes, Mr. Dugard is probably just trying to get the mule's attention; but he should take care that, when he whacks away with his two-by-four, he does not knock the poor beast unconscious!

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