rights - Nir Keidar - December 10 2010
Human Rights Day demonstration in Tel Aviv, December 10, 2010. Signs read: End apartheid; Jews & Arabs refuse to be enemies. Photo by Nir Keidar
Text size

In early February 2010, Defense Ministry Ehud Barak warned at the Herzliya Conference of the three options Israel faces: a bi-national state with enfranchised Palestinians; an apartheid state with Palestinian citizenship but no voting rights; or a two-state reality.

A year later, ahead of the Israeli Apartheid Week events held on university campuses in over 50 cities worldwide, mostly in North America and Europe, Barak appears in an article in Columbia University's student newspaper the Spectator. The article, written by Tanya Keilani and Randa Wahbe, places the defense minister alongside other public figures who, according to the article, "have pointed to Israel as an apartheid state, including Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Arun Gandhi."

However, in an interview with Haaretz, Wahbe, who mentioned all of the above in her article, didn't mention Barak.

Israeli Apartheid Week started in 2005 in Toronto, and since then has become an annual headache for pro-Israeli organizations, a growing concern for Israeli diplomats, and probably the worst time on campus for Israeli students, many of whom didn't come to the U.S. to spend time in fierce political bickering.

Some of them, however, are getting involved, on both sides of the fence.

Israeli Apartheid Week events include pretty much anything, from rallies and mock checkpoints, meant to demonstrate the brutality of the Israeli occupation, to meetings with the father of one of the Turkish flotilla victims, who happens to hold American citizenship, at George Washington University, to the Dabke flashmob at the University of Houston, or "free pizza, movie and discussion with filmmakers: 'Occupation has no future' at the University of Maryland.

But the underlying idea is always the same: to promote the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS ) campaign against Israel, redefine the narrative and terms used in discussion of Israel, (Israeli Arabs are presented as living in "ghettos" and discriminated in every possible way, ) and engage as many people as possible in order to "dismantle the systems of oppression that our tax dollars fund."

The Columbia University Students for Justice in Palestine are quite diverse: There are Jewish-American, Palestinian, Arab, Latino, African-American, Turkish, Iranian and Asian students involved in Israeli Apartheid Week, and even Israeli Maya Yechieli-Wind, 21, who spent time in military prison for her refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. She has already participated in performances featuring blindfolded Palestinians standing on their knees in a row, with two "Israeli soldiers" guarding them. She says her protest is not against the soldiers, but against the system.

Wahbe, a graduate student at Columbia studying Public Health and a member of SJP, tells Haaretz that this is the second year that her organization has been involved with Israeli Apartheid Week.

"It is successful because it gives students at Columbia University an opportunity to critically engage on issues of discrimination, apartheid and occupation, especially since our university is invested in Israeli companies and military funds. We often see an increase in membership and students interested in our events after we host Israeli Apartheid Week."

Most of the students, she says, "react with curiosity and positivity to our events; those who object to our messages and reacted negatively have been Zionist students, some affiliated with the pro-Israel organization LionPac."

This year there was much outcry after the LGBT center canceled its Party to End Apartheid following pressure from a wealthy donor who threatened to withdraw his financial support, but Wahbe says it's not the first time they've faced pressure.

"Zionist organizations often try to intimidate us by disrupting events and distorting our message in public forums", she says. "When we hold informational displays, such as the mock apartheid wall, students affiliated with the Zionist organizations often verbally attack and incite our supporters and heckle us with racist remarks including 'Palestinians don't exist, you are Jordanian,' and 'In the countries you live in, women are treated like garbage.' Jewish and Israeli students members of Students for Justice in Palestine have been sent hate mail, including one that said 'I hope you get raped by an Arab.'"

Members of the Jewish community who are offended by events ask why can't they find a better pet case, such as women brutalized in Congo, and whether they are aware if the fact there are Arab members of Knesset and an Arab judge at the Supreme court.

"Our organization is called Students for Justice in Palestine and therefore our role on our campus and in our community is to raise awareness about Palestine/Israel," says Wahbe. "However, much of our membership is involved in the advocacy of other social justice campaigns, including immigration rights, workers rights, LGBT issues and more recently the pro-democracy movements in the Arab World. We are not afraid to be critical of all governments that are violating human rights nor do we avoid using accurate terminology to describe the situation."

During the Israeli Apartheid Week in 2009, author Naomi Klein said that "nothing in this week is motivated by hate, but by justice", and stressed that the activists are not anti-semites, and are actually "honoring the Holocaust" by fighting injustice.

The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman is enraged by such claims.

"It's perverse nonsense. We are not immune to all kinds of people's abuse, and what makes it work is that opponents of Israel use Jews upfront - it's like Ahmadinejad using Neturei Karta. It's hideous. I am a Holocaust survivor, and calling the Jewish state an apartheid state doesn't honor my family that perished. It is ugly and disgusting. But it has been building. I'd say the use of the term goes back to "Zionism equals racism." Once you designate a national movement as racism and the country that has been established as racist, it's the first step toward designating it as an apartheid state. President [Jimmy] Carter gave it more credibility when he used the term, followed later by Desmond Tutu."

Foxman says Diaspora Jewish communities have no choice but to deal with it, and it's more their responsibility than Israel's, but he also calls for taking the campaign in proportion.

"There are 3,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. If it happens in 40 or 80 campuses, it's upsetting, troubling, but it's not dangerous", he says. "Overwhelmingly, students either don't care or they are pro-Israel."

Foxman says the anti-Israel efforts are not new and happen at the campuses they did 50 years ago.

"The only difference is that after the communications revolution, when something happens in Rutgers, the whole world knows. The communications revolution gives them a megaphone way beyond what they are and whom they represent," he says.

Oren Segal, director of the ADL's Center on Extremism, says the organization receives reports from students who "feel intimidated by some of the tactics, like checkpoints and efforts to silence pro-Israel speakers."

But he says they encourage students to engage in proactive efforts that focus on providing pro-Israel alternatives, rather than merely counter-protesting. He says the rise of social networking makes it easier for smaller campuses to organize their own anti-Israel activities, and allows the activists to spread their message to a wider audience, with little or no cost.

"BDS campaigns in the U.S. have failed to convince institutions to divest from Israel or to keep U.S. companies from doing business with Israel. They have, however, become an effective way for anti-Israel activists to attract attention to their message," he says.

However, with growing recognition for a Palestinian state, it seems that the balance of power is rapidly changing. The Israeli establishment, while aware of the situation, is not necessarily willing to change tactics, though. At the Washington D.C. plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs last weekend, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren called for American Jews to raise their voices.

"As in the 1930s and 40s, we cannot expect the American public to care about the safety of six million Jews if American Jews themselves stay silent. A core of committed Jews, deeply connected to Israel, is growing, but the wider periphery of highly assimilated Jews is breaking off," he said. "Among them, young Jews have indeed become alienated from Israel. This has happened not because the American Jewish establishment has failed to tell them the truth about Israeli policies. It's not because of the way those policies are portrayed on campus and in the media or even because some of our policies can indeed prove controversial. Overwhelmingly, alienation from Israel is a product of estrangement from Judaism. It is mainly because these young people have grown distant from their Jewish roots, all of which, at some depth or another, lead to Israel."

Yechieli-Wind, the Israeli taking part in the Israeli Apartheid Week activities, intends to return to Israel after finishing her studies in the U.S.

"It's not me that is presenting Israel in a negative way", she told Haaretz. "Israel is presenting itself as such, we are only showing things that are going on. I know there are problems in other places, but as an Israeli, I should protest primarily against what my government is doing."