Apartheid, an Afrikaans term meaning “separatehood”, refers to an official system of separation or segregation of groups on the basis of race. It was coined to define the government policies of strict segregation and discrimination against black people in South Africa from 1948 to 1992.
In 2005, 170 Palestinian organizations urged supporters to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, thus beginning the BDS movement. That year, Israeli Apartheid Week began in Canada’s University of Toronto. Now in its tenth year, Apartheid Week events will be held in 55 cities worldwide.
According to its website, “Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is an annual international series of events held in cities and campuses across the globe. The aim of IAW is to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.”
On the surface, IAW seems to be a socially conscious, forward-looking movement aimed at peacefully securing the rights of an oppressed people. Its history and rhetoric, however, reveal a different story.
IAW accuses Israel of institutionalized oppression of Palestinians, and by extension, all Arabs. The movement disregards the rights of Arabs living within Israel to education, healthcare and the democratic process. The implication of its position is that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, something explicitly stated by an IAW speaker at a 2012 event: “The claim that Israel should be a Jewish state can be asserted, not defended — not legally, politically or ethically…Israel has reached a moral, political and ethical dead-end. The notion that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic violates the rights of Palestinians, which is fine if you don’t see Palestinians as humans, but, if you do, it is wrong.”
Historically, IAW has been the scene of clashes between supporters and Jewish or pro-Israel students. In 2012, members of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter of George Washington University attempted to disrupt an event hosted by a pro-Israel organization on campus during Apartheid Week. That same year, a mock “apartheid wall” and “checkpoint” erected at the London School of Economics resulted in violence. Jewish students were called “Israelis” and intimidated by demonstrators, which caused a backlash. Similar intimidation’s are reported annually on campuses around the world where such demonstrations are held.
IAW has also been known to use distortion to promote its position. Recently, Brandeis University student and Jewish activist Joshua Nass demanded IAW retract a video in which his image was used and his statement misquoted to suggest he supports IAW and the BDS movement. He is in fact strongly pro-Israel and had spoken out against the ASA vote to boycott Israel.
Pro-Israel students across the globe are mobilizing to stand up for Israel. Two Israel students at Oxford University in London, England penned an open letter urging moderate Israeli voices make themselves heard.
“Apartheid week is led by extremists who think I do not have a right to live in my own country. They do not only object to the occupation or West Bank settlements, but to the existence of Israel. The events themselves are propaganda which depict Israel as a racist enterprise, invalid by definition,” says letter-writer Yishai Mishor.
“We discovered that the Israeli government’s extreme, howling hasbara (public diplomacy) was an utter failure. We realized that when you project moderate positions which recognize Palestinian rights and not only the rights of Jews, it’s not just fair – it’s effective.”
At LSE this year, the Department of International History sent the entire student body an invitation to Apartheid Week. Student Dir Glick reacted immediately.
“It seems strange to me (that) the department of International History at the LSE uses the term ‘Israeli Apartheid’ in an official e-mail forwarded to the entire student body. Without starting to debate whether this term is right or wrong, it is clearly a highly controversial, completely political definition which belongs to the world of politics and not to the academia.
“Just as one would not imagine to send an official invitation from the department using words such as ‘the justified Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria’ – it seems to me outrageous to have clear propaganda such as ‘Israeli apartheid’ in your mail,” Glick wrote in his email.
According to him, “the biggest problem for me is that apartheid is presented as a fact. It becomes a concept when it is forwarded by the department. What happens when a student from China who knows very little about the situation in the Middle East gets such an email?”
Glick encourages his fellow students to follow his lead. “Israeli students around the world must not accept apartheid week invitations as a matter fact. We need to write and complain to university officials. Many times such e-mails are sent because of ignorance or thoughtlessness.”
According to Ilan Ofir at University of Michigan, “At Ann Arbor we are promoting dialogue about the state of Israel that will allow students from all political opinions and background to engage with what Israel means.
“The problem with BDS – which Apartheid Week serves – is that it ignores realities on the ground and perpetuates the conflict by not bridging gaps but enhancing them. This week we will be bringing a pro-peace group to discuss this issue in a pragmatic way which brings the two sides together to show how direct engagement with this topic will take us forward,” Ofir explained. “The boycott itself perpetuates the conflict by ignoring both sides of the equation. It must be established that the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not a zero-sum game.”