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March 15, 2019 10:26 am

Will Israeli Academia Lead the Charge to Counter ‘Apartheid Week’ and BDS?

avatar by Karen Berman


A display erected by Penn Students for Justice in Palestine during its ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ campaign. Photo: Penn SJP.

While anti-Israel incidents driven by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement are prevalent on American college campuses throughout the year, a particularly jarring period for Jewish and pro-Israel students is “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW) — the annual showcase of anti-Israel events and public displays held on campuses worldwide.

“Apartheid” isn’t the initiative’s only misnomer — as the “week” lasts an entire three weeks. Scheduled this year to run from March 18 to April 8, this year’s IAW theme will be “Stop Arming Colonialism.”

The “Israeli apartheid” analogy is patently false on a number of levels. Let’s start with this year’s theme of “colonialism.” The last time I checked, Israel doesn’t control any overseas territories; the country’s primary overseas presence is its exportation of world-changing innovations and technologies for the benefit of humanity.

The apartheid accusation also implies oppression of minorities and marginalized populations. If that’s the case, how do IAW’s organizers explain that Arabs are elected members of the Knesset; that Israel invests millions of dollars in the Arab high-tech sector and billions in neglected Arab areas of East Jerusalem; that Tel Aviv is one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities; that Israel is the only Mideast country that adequately protects women’s rights; and that Israel provides electricity and water to a Gaza Strip that is ruled by a Hamas terrorist group committed to the Jewish state’s destruction?

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Further, what explains the richly diverse and highly-tolerant environment at an Israeli campus like the University of Haifa, whose student body is 35-percent Arab, and whose Israeli and Arab students work together in harmony on extracurricular activities and community service projects? Most recently, 100 University of Haifa students took part in the Congress of Israeli-Palestinian Students — simulations of negotiations on steps to end violence and promote tangible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli and Palestinian students who took part in this exercise give us hope for a brighter future in the region, and illustrate the broader yearning for peace in Israeli society as a whole. This society doesn’t look anything like colonialism or apartheid.

These are all terrific arguments to easily debunk any notion of “Israeli apartheid.” But who should be the chief spokesman articulating this message, and how should this message be communicated in order to substantively counter BDS on college campuses and in other arenas?

American Jewish advocacy groups have traditionally led the charge against BDS, and they should continue to play a central role in that endeavor. But University of Haifa President Ron Robin — who recently assumed a new role as chairman of the Committee of University Heads of Israel — conveyed some key insights on Israel’s own strategy for tackling BDS in an interview last month with The Associated Press.

Robin talked about the need for Israeli universities to make the moral case for Israel, by stressing their diversity and promoting “the role of universities in creating an inclusive meritocracy in Israel.”

On the surface, it sounds counter-intuitive that Israel itself will make the best case against BDS. Isn’t Israel biased and self-interested when it comes to this issue? Wouldn’t the most powerful case be made by an external source?

That point is reasonable enough. But on a practical level, the next sea change in the fight against BDS will come from Israel’s own approach to the issue.

Israelis know that they have the moral high ground on this issue, but they shouldn’t forget that global audiences far and wide aren’t aware of the case against BDS, the ridiculousness of the “Israeli apartheid” slander, or the depth of Israeli diversity.

The State of Israel, Israeli institutions, and the Israeli people must not be afraid to defend themselves or to tout their society’s achievements, supplementing the external defenses and support that Israel receives from the American and global pro-Israel communities.

Nor should Israel and its academic institutions shy away from sharing what they already deem to be obvious points in the moral arena, including the crucial point that delegitimizing, demonizing, and applying double standards to Israel are encompassed within the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism.

During “Israeli Apartheid Week” and year-round, the University of Haifa and the Committee of University Heads of Israel will be proud to hoist a megaphone that spreads the truth about Israel’s diversity to the world.

Karen L. Berman is CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.

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