This year’s “Israeli Apartheid Week” has come and gone.
While announced and promoted by a slick, highly professional video, and while anticipated in a batch of articles and opinion columns in the Israeli and American Jewish press, judging from reports from a number of cities, the whole thing was rather uneventful, at least in North America.
Here in Chicago, where the anti-Israel group known as Students for Justice in Palestine is particularly active on a number of campuses, and where last year’s observance of the event brought “apartheid walls” plastered with inflammatory signage to three local campuses and other activities carried out elsewhere, things were quite quiet.
This isn’t to say, however, that anti-Israel agitation on campus is an over-hyped thing of the past. For one thing, activities aimed at advancing a radical version of the Palestinian “cause” continue to be carried out on a year-round basis. And for another, the danger, while not to be exaggerated, should also not be lightly dismissed.
And so, for example, shortly before Israeli Apartheid Week took place, an annual conference aimed at promoting boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel, which moves from campus to campus, was held at the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, another conference, this one aimed at making the case for a “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, has since been convened at Harvard University.
Exposing the true intent of BDS
Gaining less attention, but nevertheless an example of the smaller-scale activity that goes on regularly around the country, an anti-Zionist Jewish psychologist named Mark Braverman, who has made it his mission to urge Christians to free themselves of guilt feelings about the Holocaust — which could interfere with a readiness to be harshly critical of Israel — came to visit the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Demonizing Israel and using anti-Semitic tropes while speaking at several programs on and off campus, he left Jewish students shocked and appalled.
The goal is not just to oppose the tactics of those who would exploit the openness of campus culture to advance their destructive purposes but also to expose their true intent and counter their messages.
Having grown accustomed to such activity over the past several years, community organizations like ours have developed a strategic approach that not only supports students in responding to the hostile attacks but pays a great deal of attention to advancing positive educational programming about Israel on campus. The goal is not just to oppose the tactics of those who would exploit the openness of campus culture to advance their destructive purposes but also to expose their true intent and counter their messages.
For what is currently happening on many North American campuses is a war of words and images generated by those who reject the right of Israel to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people and whose aim is to erode the support Israel now has from its most important ally. It is a war that is conducted less through single battles of the sort that Israeli Apartheid Week epitomizes than by recurring offensives carried out in a cumulative war of attrition.
Consider the movement to advance boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). While the movement has few explicit successes to show for its efforts, certainly not on North American campuses. In fact it is unlikely that any serious direct harm could be done to Israel even if the steps were adopted in the places where they are promoted. The real purpose and impact of this agitation is to advance negative images of Israel, associating the country with the South African regime that actually did practice apartheid and that ultimately was brought down in great part by international sanctions.
Israel is likened to that regime to make it appear similarly illegitimate and evil, and the message is meant to seep in. And thus, for example, when DePaul University in Chicago last year was the site of a full-scale effort aimed at forcing a boycott on campus of something as seemingly trivial as Sabra hummus, the Student Union was plastered with posters calling for the boycott as a means of halting apartheid, posters that portrayed the Israelis as brutal baby-killers – and it was those terms and images that were really the crux of the effort.
The real purpose and impact of this agitation is to advance negative images of Israel, associating the country with the South African regime.
Such incendiary, outrageous words and images are put out there, on campus after campus, over and over again: Comparisons of the Israelis to the Nazis; claims of Israeli genocide; assertions that Israel is a gross, deliberate violator of human rights; appeals to belief in democracy as a basis for supporting the eliminationist one-state solution. It is all part of an incessant campaign carried out through various means and in various settings. Even the naming of Students for Justice in Palestine – an organization that was invisible if not non-existent a decade or so ago but has emerged as the most dominant, ubiquitous anti-Israel group on one campus after another – reflects that gestalt.
Besides the fact that university campuses are the most likely places to find the right cohort to advance this campaign – a cadre made up of radical Palestinian and Muslim students and their ideology-driven student and faculty allies – they are also the prime battleground for another reason. For it is there that the leaders and voters of tomorrow – young idealists who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to the kinds of messages that are deceptively evoked – are coming of age. It is there that Israel’s adversaries try to shape the American mind (to modify a phrase introduced by Allan Bloom 25 years ago) so Israel will no longer be thought of with sympathetic understanding.
For those of us who are concerned and involved in campus life, the challenge is to recognize this threat for what it is, to expose it, and to build countervailing attachments to the real Israel. To do that we need to be smart, fully attuned to the campus culture, and on the job 52 weeks a year — not just one.
Michael Kotzin is Senior Counselor to the President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, which is actively engaged on local campuses, especially through its Department of Campus Affairs.