The Semiotics of Conflict

Catchwords may wield as much influence as Kalashnikovs.


As air strikes and rocket fire rained down on the Gaza Strip and southern Israel last December, a different kind of battle was set off on this side of the Atlantic. These combatants, armed with words in the place of weapons, wield rhetoric fraught with political baggage to burnish their arguments and discredit those of their rivals.

Likening Israeli control over Palestinian territory to the conditions found in South Africa under apartheid has become increasingly widespread, and student campaigns calling for divestment from companies that supply and support Israel are popping up at academic institutions. And last month, over 40 cities worldwide reportedly held events commemorating the fifth annual "Israeli Apartheid Week."

Using the word "apartheid" is controversial, but that's the point. Jimmy Carter used it in his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has long compared the plight of Palestinians to that of black South Africans under the notorious regime.

"Language can be used in a political context just as it can in a marketing context," says Burt Alper, strategy director of Catchword Branding in Oakland, CA. Political branding, with its use (and misuse) of language and spin - once the purview of advertising - has now migrated to activism.

The goal of both advocates and critics of Israeli policy is to "get people out of the fog," Alper says. "When you use a loaded term, you are encouraging people who are in the middle to not just take a stance but take a stance against conventional wisdom, which tells us in this case in the US that Israel is the victim."

Comparisons, however, are seldom clear-cut: Arabs in Israel, for example, can vote and hold seats in parliament – unthinkable achievements for blacks living under South Africa's apartheid regime. Yet just as '70s-era laws in the US mandating police officers to meet certain height and weight requirements were not overtly sexist but excluded women in practice, realities on the ground reflect stark distinctions between Jewish and Arab counterparts.

If it is technically inaccurate, employing the word "apartheid" could be self-defeating, warns Johan D. van der Vyver, a South African-born professor of International Law and Human Rights at Emory University in Atlanta. "There is a political stigma attached to this word comfortably recognized in international law as a crime against humanity," he says, and it could turn people off instead of luring them to join the cause. Carter's use of the word may have even been detrimental to his message, as attention focused more on his terminology rather than the book's content.

The rhetorical battle has also manifested into action. A student group at Hampshire College in Massachusetts made headlines in February when it claimed victory in getting the school's board of trustees to change its investment policy in companies – such as Caterpillar, Motorola and General Electric – that the group identified to directly or indirectly "contribute and support Israel's military occupation."

While school officials quickly fired back that the divestment decision "was not made in reference to Israel," the students received a flood of requests from other universities across the country to help launch similar campaigns. In 1977, Hampshire College became the first institution of higher education in the US to divest from South Africa, and the group hopes its actions – or at least the publicity it produced – will set forth such a precedent again.

Comparing the Israeli government to the South African apartheid regime is "one sided anti-Israel propaganda," says Roz Rothstein, International Director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel organization based in California. Others argue that it is unfair to single out one country when atrocities are committed everyday by a multitude of governments.

Divestment, the extraction of investments from one entity in order to pursue profits elsewhere, is at its core a neutral business term. Apartheid literally means separateness in Afrikaans. While these words may have signified little to the American public before 1948, they now hark back to the legally sanctioned and deliberate institutionalized racism that ruled South Africa for decades.

Divestment campaigns may end up doing little to change policy anyway; "If you boil it down, divestment campaigns occur because they make people feel good," says Usha C.V. Haley, a divestment expert and Asia Programs Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Though they are widely praised as dismantling the South African apartheid regime, Haley's survey of 322 American companies operating in South Africa over seven years found that most companies left the country because of a direct hit to their earnings – not political pressure. "Sanctions and boycotts unfortunately take a shot-gun approach to influencing multinationals," she says. "But it takes the ability to wield a scalpel to affect [their] profits directly." Economic tactics will not likely have an effect of influencing operations in Israel, she contends. "They will instead deflect the opposition to some symbolic measures and continue as before."

Whether the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine reflects that of South Africa under apartheid will likely remain a point of contention for years to come. Ultimately, to what degree the divestment campaigns economically impact Israel and the companies that support it may be less important than what the labels of this conflict are able to produce in the minds of the American public and international community. If the rebranding attempts are successful, half the battle may already have been won.

Esmé E. Deprez is a New York-based journalist with a passion for covering foreign policy, business and politics,