BOSTON — For more than a decade, “Israeli Apartheid Week” has appeared at dozens of campuses worldwide, as the Jewish state’s detractors take center-stage to condemn the “settler-colonial project” where “apartheid policies over the Palestinian people” amount to “ethnic cleansing,” according to IAW’s mission statement.
In the assessment of some Israel supporters, loud elements of the pro-Israel community have made mountains out of molehills with their reaction to IAW, the annual Israel-bashing fest of Students for Justice in Palestine. In the words of an anonymous “Northeast Hillel director” quoted by JTA this week, “Apartheid Week” and other SJP activities amount to “kind of a big nothing.
“Many pro-Israel activists say their most successful strategy is simply to ignore it,” said Nadya Drukker, Brooklyn College’s Hillel director, in the article.
But on another part of the pro-Israel PR spectrum, some activists vehemently oppose an “ignore it” strategy, and are ringing alarms about the growth of campus anti-Semitism catalyzed by SJP’s supposedly “big nothing” activities — notably including the group’s quest to eliminate Jews from student government, aided by partners like Palestine Legal.
“Israeli Apartheid Week is a tremendous source of anti-Semitic expression and incitement of hatred for the Jewish state and Jews generally,” said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, cofounder and director of the Israel advocacy AMCHA Initiative.
As SJP’s most publicized anti-Israel fest, IAW icons include the ugly gray apartheid wall, usually covered in “facts” to demonize Israel; mock Israeli military “check-points” set up to “simulate” the daily lives of Palestinians, and ubiquitous calls to “de-normalize” relations with Israel and implement BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against the Jewish state. (IAW is held in various countries worldwide between February and April; in the US this year, it is largely taking place between March 27 and April 3.)
Since its creation in 2005 by Arab students in Toronto, rolling “Apartheid Weeks” have taken place on North American campuses during the spring semester, with funding and guidance from the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace. For Jewish college students who visibly identify as such, the annual hate-fest can be a dreaded ordeal.
“Frequently during Israeli Apartheid Week and BDS campaigns, Jewish students are singled out, harassed, intimidated and even assaulted, regardless of their feelings on Israel,” Rossman-Benjamin told The Times of Israel in an interview. “Jewish students report feeling afraid to display their Jewish Star necklaces, wear their Jewish sorority or fraternity letters, or walk to Hillel for Shabbat dinner during these heightened weeks,” she said.
Last week, AMCHA released study findings that correlate BDS activities and anti-Semitic incidents on American campuses. From swastikas spray-painted onto the porches of Jewish fraternities, to students being punched at pro-Israel gatherings, the study called BDS a key driver of anti-Semitic incidents at dozens of universities. On some campuses, faculty and administrators actively support SJP and the BDS movement, adding fuel — and badly needed legitimacy — to anti-Israel fires.
“Israeli Apartheid Week activities are often sponsored by university groups and academic departments, sending a message that the anti-Semitic aspects are completely acceptable,” said Rossman-Benjamin.
In addition to flashier, public displays of hating on Israel, SJP has been strengthening its model and organizational structure to achieve more tangible results, according to a report issued by the Washington-based Israel on Campus Coalition last month.
“SJP’s institutional development poses a critical challenge for pro-Israel activists,” said the report. “The emergence of a national agenda marks a shift toward strategic planning, an important precondition for effective activism. Much like its strategy-building efforts, SJP’s updated leadership model lays the foundation for further organizational development,” according to ICC researchers.
Leaked plan calls for ‘unity’ to dismantle Israel
In this year’s “Apartheid Week” game-plan, leaked to The Times of Israel, SJP organizers call for tactics like increased use of social media and coalition-building on campus. Although BDS resolutions are rarely passed by a North American student government — much less implemented by the host university — SJP leaders consider their flagship project to be anything but “a big nothing.”
“Ten years since its launch, the BDS movement is now widely recognized by Palestinians, the solidarity movement, Israel and its supporters as a key way in which we can hold Israel to account and end international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism,” according to the document.
Among new tactics offered in the IAW plan, an “Olympics Without Apartheid” campaign calls on activists to condemn this summer’s Rio Olympics, partly due to a (cancelled) partnership between the Brazilian host city and the firm International Security and Defense Systems, which SJP called “one of Israel’s nastiest military companies.
“Local campaigners against the impact of the Olympics and Palestine activists are linking up to resist the way the Rio 2016 Olympics is resulting in forced displacement in Rio and supporting Israeli apartheid in Palestine,” according to SJP.
Not surprisingly, the document gives unqualified support for Palestinians’ ongoing “intifada” against Israeli civilians and soldiers, in which terrorists — many of them adolescents — have attacked hundreds of Israelis with knives, cars, guns, and explosives. Making no mention of incitement or terrorism, SJP frames the violence as a response to Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians, a population that has grown exponentially since modern Zionism’s advent in the 1880s.
“Since October 2015, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been joining demonstrations and protesting Israel’s regime of apartheid and settler-colonialism,” according to the document. “The ongoing, youth-led Palestinian uprising is a response to Israel’s intensifying ethnic cleansing and oppression of Palestinians, especially in occupied Jerusalem.”
Campus groups seeking to hold an official IAW must first agree to a “Basis of Unity” document, in which activists agree to undo Jewish statehood by implementing a “right of return.” There is a special call to target “artists, intellectuals and sports teams” — many of whom “legitimize Israeli apartheid by continuing business as usual.”
The state of the Jews on campus
According to the data-gathering Israel on Campus Coalition, the academic year has been filled with “joint lists of demands,” “intersectionality” and “baiting” — all strategies deployed by SJP to erode support for the Mideast’s lone democracy.
In contrast with a nonchalant stance toward SJP and BDS, the Coalition warns that anti-Israel groups are increasingly attempting to remove Jewish and pro-Israel voices from student governments, and that SJP has transformed into “a structured advocacy movement” since last year.
Not all is bleak for Israel supporters, however, as ICC researchers also reported increased pro-Israel campus activities in every region of the US since September.
“We have seen a steady increase in the amount of pro-Israel campus activity across all geographic regions,” according to last month’s ICC report on fall 2015 activities. “New England saw the largest increase in pro-Israel campus activity during the fall semester,” said the report.
According to Brandeis University junior Seth Greenwald, an activist affiliated with almost one-dozen pro-Israel groups, the expansion of travel opportunities to Israel for both Jewish and non-Jewish students has helped deter some Israel detractors from organizing, he said.
Calling on students to “proudly put forward Israel’s narrative,” Greenwald said Israel supporters must also explain the “two-faced and insidious” role of BDS in leading to — for instance — thousands of Palestinian job losses, while causing little economic damage to Israel.
“SJP attempts to instill fear and silence, rather than dialogue and discussion,” said Greenwald in an interview with The Times of Israel. “They call this anti-normalization, an unwillingness to speak with their enemy,” he said.
Widely acknowledged as a prime force in combating BDS on campus, the well-resourced StandWithUs views IAW as a platform for students and faculty to single out and demonize Israel among all nations, while hiding behind the guise of human rights for Palestinians.
“Apartheid Week is a problem in that it is part of a larger strategy to dehumanize Israelis, turn future leaders and opinion-makers against them, and ultimately eliminate Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” said Max Samarov, a StandWithUs strategist.
Samarov said there is no “one size fits all” strategy to deal with the growing BDS movement. Rather, pro-Israel students and administrators must determine responses on a “case-by-case basis,” and keep in mind that falafel does not sufficiently address charges of genocide, or the harassment of Jewish students on campus.
“We should avoid playing defense and use the week as motivation to develop and implement a proactive strategy of our own,” said Samarov. “At some campuses, anti-Israel displays and events really don’t reach outside the choir, and calling attention to them can be counterproductive. In other places these activities are more troublesome, and it is important to challenge misinformation on the spot and provide an alternative perspective,” he said.