Why We Should All Support Israeli Apartheid Week

This is the fifth consecutive year of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Launched in Toronto, this week-long initiative hosts a string of lectures, film screenings, panels, demonstrations, cultural performances and other events across campuses and community centers around the world to inform the public about the continuing violations of one of the longest and devastating occupations in modern history.

IAW seeks to raise awareness about Israel’s apartheid policies towards Palestinians and to mobilize support for the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign initiated in July 2005 in a statement by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations.

But if you didn’t support IAW in the past, now is the time to start.

McCarthyism on Canadian Campuses

In February 2008, the McMaster Student Union (MSU) and McMaster’s Human Rights and Equity Services (HRES) office banned the IAW poster due to allegations that it was “inflammatory.” That decision was made in the shadow of attempts by the McMaster administration, to unequivocally ban the mere usage of the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” by student groups on campus. What was then an explicit and unprecedented attack on the right to academic freedom, the right to organize and freedom of speech has become the norm for Canadian universities during this year’s IAW – all of which was successfully documented by organizers.

Both Carleton and Ottawa University banned the IAW poster featuring Carlos Latuff’s cartoon of an Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) helicopter firing a rocket at a Palestinian child in Gaza holding a teddy bear. IOF killings of unarmed civilians, including over 400 children, in the Gaza Strip during the latest onslaught is a well documented part of the IOF’s policy of collective punishment of the 1.5 million civilian population of the Gaza Strip. In a blatant violation of free expression for students drawing attention to Israel’s indiscriminate military offensive, these administrations issued communiqué’s making contrived claims of the poster as offending the “Ontario Human Rights code” and so-called “civil discourse in a free and democratic society.” As neither university administration responded to student calls for a statement condemning Israel’s indiscriminate civilian killings and the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza, it is evident that they are simply unwilling to engage in the same human rights and democratic discourse they spuriously allege the IAW poster is violating.

Another well documented elaborate campaign against IAW played out at the University of Toronto, where the administration along with the collaboration and direct involvement of pro-Israeli organizations and other Ontario university administrations attempted to prevent student access to campus space. Pointing to email correspondence gathered through the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act between University President David Naylor, Assistant Provost, Interim Vice-President Provost and Hillel of Greater Toronto, among others, IAW organizers exposed a coordinated attempt to cancel the event prior to their issue of a request for campus space. Attempts by the University of Toronto administration to deny anti-apartheid organizers access to campus space reveals the extensive influence of lobby groups on the decision and policy-making of officials in office. Further, this points to disturbingly coordinated cross-university initiatives to prevent students from voicing their opposition Israeli violations of international law and their academic, political and corporate ties to Canadian institutions.

At York University, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA York) recently “received notice of a 30-day suspension, a $1000 fine and an individual fine of $250 for the student signatory for the group” for “actively participating” in a rally on February 12 ,using “various sound amplification devices and other noise making instruments” that disrupted classes. SAIA York notes that despite redirecting the rally from Vari Hall to deliver a letter to the administration, York University imposed the “maximum monetary penalty” and violated its own procedures by not following the “verification process outlined in the university’s Student Code of Conduct.” This decision follows York’s precedent of censoring political speech in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

In addition to bureaucratic harassment, regular statements by University President Mamdouh Shoukri “calling for peace”
on York campuses, and motions for the re-evaluation of campus spaces such as Vari Hall for protest activity signal a growing nervousness among Canadian university administrations from increased student organizing around issues of social justice.

Indeed, for the most part, pro-Israeli groups on the above campuses argue that Israeli Apartheid Week creates “fear on campus” making it more difficult to “speak out in defence of Israel.” What is missed here is that however outrageous and infringing on basic freedoms of thought, speech, opinion and expression: banning a poster, censoring a phrase, and denying campus space will not stifle discussion or debate. Nor will it quell the responsibility and drive of students and community members to condemn Israeli war crimes. Rather, confidence in terms like “tolerance…civil discourse…free and democratic society” is the real casualty of the latest wave of campus repression.

Unprecedented Attacks Against
Community Organizations, Trade Unions

In conjunction with attempts to stifle organizing on campuses, local community organizations and trade unions supporting Palestine solidarity groups are experiencing extreme financial blackmail and bureaucratic harassment. In a speech at the Inaugural Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism held in London, Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney declared that the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) and Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) should not expect to receive government funding because of what he called “their hateful sentiments toward Israel and Jews.” The conference was largely organized by the Canadian Former Minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, a staunch pro-Israel advocate who gathered similar-minded pro-Israeli parliamentarians and advocates including: Co-chairperson of Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel, MP Anita Neville, former chair of the Canada-Israel Friendship Group, MP Carolyn Bennett, Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), Hershell Ezrin, and MP Bob Rae, member of the Tribute Committee of the Jewish National Fund.

Pointing to their criticisms of Israeli war crimes during the second Lebanon war in 2006 and during the recent military attacks in Gaza, and their condemnation of increasing institutional collaborations between Canada and Israel particularly in regards to issues of national security and public safety, Kenney depicts CAF and CIC as undeserving of “official respect from the government or the organs of [the] state.”
In a recent interview with the Canadian Jewish News, Kenney even voiced a vicious personal attack on CAF President Khaled Mouammar, as representing a “kind of shrill, cartoonish voice of extremism.” While the vilification of respected community leaders and organizations is troubling, perhaps what is more chilling is the explicit use of government and taxpayer money to financially blackmail recognized groups who disagree with the political direction of appointed members of parliament.

Similar bureaucratic harassment is directed at the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario (CUPE Ontario), whose delegates voted in favour of a resolution to boycott Israeli universities as a form of protest against Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza. Joining an international chorus of voices calling for political, academic and economic pressure on Israeli institutions for its war crimes, CUPE Ontario President Sid Ryan argues that the resolution targets “academic institutions and the institutional connections that exist between universities here and those in Israel,” with a focus on those “doing research that benefits that nation’s military.”

The call for boycott aimed at challenging deep rooted alliances between Canadian and pro-Israeli institutions on university campuses – the types of alliances allowing for the aforementioned instances of repression faced by IAW organizers – was met with intense political and financial pressure from all sides. Reiterating his previous statement when the resolution was first proposed, CUPE National President Paul Moist swiftly announced his disagreement with its passing and highlighted the autonomous character of the provincial branches of the union. The resolution was even condemned by the Liberal Party of Canada, whose speaker Justice Critic Dominic LeBlanc pointed to “widespread academic collaboration between Canadian and Israeli scholars” and deemed the CUPE resolution “foolish” and “reckless.”

These statements are made in the shadow of a wave of scathing press releases, memos, letters and email campaigns initiated by the Canada Israel Committee, Canadian Jewish Congress, Jewish Defence League, and B’nai Brith Canada which flood people’s inboxes with outrageous accusations of “anti-Semitism” directed at community representatives such as Ryan and Mouammar.

Baseless accusations of anti-Semitism

One of the most troubling trends in Canadian public discourse around Israel is the explicit equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. At the London Conference, Kenney contrasts “old-school anti-Semitism” with what he calls “new anti-Semitism.” This new anti-Semitism is the “anti-Zionist version of anti-Semitism,” argued Kenney, one “predicated on the notion that the Jews alone have no right to a homeland.” In other words, the anti-Semitism of the right is replaced with the anti-Zionism of the left.

At the very least, such a warped argument should make students of this conflict very nervous. Criticism of Israel has long been equated as an expression of hate against the Jewish people by Israeli lobbyists, who inflate the definition of “anti-Semitism” to capture any and all criticisms of Israel. Indeed, this all-encompassing umbrella would capture even Jewish and Israeli political opponents and critics of Israel. There is no question that organizers of IAW and community representatives such as Sid Ryan and Khaled Mouammar are openly critical of Israel and, like countless international and Israeli human rights organizations, demand that Israel be held accountable for its continued war crimes. However, to apply anti-Semitism to their anti-Zionist policies and criticisms is to dilute the intense moral condemnation that should accompany accusations of anti-Semitism. Granted, anti-Jewish racism exists. But when it comes to the question of political criticisms of Israel’s constitutionally entrenched ethnic exclusivity and continued policies of Zionist land appropriation at the demise of the indigenous Palestinian population, such accusations are unfounded.

Zionism is not just racism. It is deeply rooted in racist, militarist, nationalist, and colonial thought. Kenney’s argument that Zionism is simply a belief that Jewish people are a nation and thus entitled to self-determination like other nations is a grotesque oversimplification. From the onset, political Zionism was a controversial movement even among Jews, and Israeli historians and academics have since provided a range of arguments, and uncovered evidence that Zionism is both historically and thematically rooted in racist, nationalist and colonial thought. Baruch Kimmerling argued Zionism is a “mixture of territorial nationalism with colonialism”; Gershon Shafir called it a “clear variant of colonialism”; and Ilan Pappe deems Zionism as an “unconventional colonialism… [whose] thought and praxis were motivated by a national impulse but acted as pure colonialism” (Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2008).

It is well documented by both Israeli and non-Israeli historians that early Zionist leaders spoke openly about ethnically cleansing the indigenous Palestinian population. In fact, Israeli politicians continue to do so today, as with recent statements made by the so-called centrist Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni who, prior to winning the largest number of Knesset seats in the February 10th elections, said: “Once a Palestinian state is established, I can come to the Palestinian citizens, whom we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them ‘you are citizens with equal rights, but the national solution for you is elsewhere.” Indeed, IAW lectures, panels and workshops also illuminate the effects of Zionist policies on the Arab community inside Israel, the remnants of the ethnically cleansed Palestinian community in 1948, pointing to its legal forms of ethnic discrimination designed to maintain the exclusive “Jewish character” of the State.

‘Standing united with the people of Gaza’

This is the theme of this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week. And for good reason. I do not need to repeat the devastating casualty figures, or recall the horrifying and sickening images of mass suffering, dismemberment and widespread destruction in Gaza. Israeli atrocities have continued since the 22-day blitzkrieg. Just last week, between February 12-20, the IOF killed three Palestinians including two children, and wounded fifteen others including six children, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This does not account for the number of incursions, widespread searches, restrictions on movement, shootings, and nightly raids that continue to occur throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The above events point to an alarming rise of neo-conservatism on Canadian campuses and cities, and a silencing of expressed dissent against their ties to Israel’s political and corporate establishment. This year’s Israeli Apartheid Week is about reclaiming university campuses as spaces within which our basic rights to speech, expression, and political opinion are protected. It is about our responsibility to hold elected and appointed Parliamentarians accountable to our social, academic and political demands, and liable for their verbal and bureaucratic attacks on community organizations and trade unions. It is about the absolute need not to allow lobbyists and advocacy groups to exploit their financial and political ties to sway the decision and policy-making of our university administrators.

Most of all, Israeli Apartheid Week deconstructs the mirage of academic institutions as apolitical spaces, demanding our active intellectual and political engagement with global issues playing out on our campuses. The list of reasons goes on. •

Shadi Chaleshtoori is a student at York University. Shadi has worked with numerous Palestinian civil society organizations located in Gaza City, the West Bank and inside Israel.