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April 9, 2019 8:20 pm

Jewish, Zionist Students Speak Out Over Divisive ‘Apartheid Week’ Campaign Targeting Israel

avatar by Shiri Moshe

Columbia University. Photo: Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University.

Jewish and Zionist students who recently faced heightened levels of anti-Zionist campus activism during the provocatively-named “Israeli Apartheid Week” have spoken out against its divisive nature, and in many cases confronted it with their own programming.

First launched by the Arab Students’ Collective at the University of Toronto in 2005, IAW has since expanded to dozens of campuses internationally with the aim of promoting the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which rejects the existence of a Jewish nation-state in the Levant. Jewish student groups have frequently accused BDS advocates and IAW specifically of engendering a hostile atmosphere on their campuses, including by presenting a hard-line and one-sided narrative of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict that rejects Zionist perspectives, and sometimes resorts to using antisemitic tropes.

With the help of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), whose membership reportedly includes five different US designated terrorist organizations, IAW officially launched in North America and Europe on March 18, though some anti-Zionist groups launched their programming weeks earlier or later. Various university campuses hosted lectures, panels, and film screenings under the week’s umbrella, as well as large “apartheid wall” displays that mimic the West Bank security barrier the Israeli government constructed in response to suicide bombings and other Palestinian terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada. As in past years, many of these displays featured maps that depict the entirety of Israel as Palestinian territory, often alongside other controversial content– including, for instance, an image of a Palestinian woman carrying a rifle and wearing a belt of bullets across her chest, as seen on a mock wall erected this month by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Florida State University.

Students continued speaking out this year about themes promoted during IAW that they considered to be problematic, including at Harvard University in Cambridge, where the Palestine Solidarity Committee’s IAW events — organized with funding from the school’s Undergraduate Council — ranged from a film screening and panel discussions to a “Wall of Resistance” display. The wall sought to link the Palestinian struggle to those endured by other groups “through a common theme of resistance to oppression,” according to one organizer, and was co-sponsored by 14 students clubs, including Harvard College Democrats, the Harvard Crimson reported.

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The display appeared to be emblematic of a broader strategy emphasized this year by BDS activists during IAW. “Anti-Israel activists on campus have begun shifting away from divestment campaigns and toward anti-Israel provocations,” Matt Berger, vice president of communications at Hillel International, told The Algemeiner. “They are trying to smear Israel with false but sophisticated accusations about oppression, attempting to link anti-Israel invective with the movement for social equity for minorities.”

In response to the planned IAW events, as well as the student funding the program received, Rebecca Thau — president of Harvard Hillel’s Undergraduate Steering Committee — said in a statement that the week “works to protract, not resolve, the conflict,” and “impedes substantive dialogue by asking students to choose simplistically whether they are ‘for’ or ‘against’ Israel, and by encouraging them to reflexively reject the other side’s narrative.”

The program leads to “vilifying students for their commitments and even their heritages, turning students away from — rather than toward — one another, and preventing meaningful conversation,” she added.

Similar objections were shared days later by two Harvard students and self-described “liberal Zionists,” who criticized the PSC for harming the “cause of peace” by inviting BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti to speak on campus later this month.

“We have seen the annual disregard for veracity and truth,” they wrote of IAW in an op-ed published by the Harvard Crimson. “We have eyed the contempt shown to Jewish history and narratives.”

Multiple students at Wake Forest University in North Carolina likewise accused organizers of the campus’ first “Solidarity with Palestine” week of dismissing mainstream Jewish and Zionist perspectives, including though an exhibit that accused Israel of crimes like “murder of children” and criticized a definition of antisemitism without offering a counter-perspective.

About 50 students and community members ultimately protested a panel organized on campus to discuss, in part, “the differences between anti-zionism and anti-semitism,” which they claimed deliberately excluded voices representative of the Jewish community.

“[Only] those espousing the Palestinian point of view were given the opportunity to speak,” Molly Sugarman, WFU Hillel president, told The Algemeiner of the panel, after expressing disappointment at seeing “such a blatant display of antisemitism” throughout the week. “Members of Hillel and the mainstream Jewish community who tried to voice a different perspective were ignored or dismissed. Our hopes for a balanced and inclusive approach were dashed and instead replaced by a largely prejudicial view about Jews and about Israel.”

At Emory University in Georgia, concerns were shared after SJP led a die-in protest of Zionist groups who were tabling during Israel Week — a response to IAW — and left mock eviction notices on dorm room doors in violation of university policy. A subsequent outcry over the flyers, fed in part by disputed allegations that they specifically targeted Jewish students, led SJP to release a statement calling for a boycott of Jewish and Zionist campus groups, including Emory Chabad and Emory Hillel, the latter of which was later removed from the list.

“Information that is essential to understanding the complexity of the conflict [was] purposely left out of the eviction notices,” Jackie Weiss, an Emory student and co-president of the Zionist campus group EIPAC, said in a statement to The Algemeiner, adding that some students “must have been shaken by this stunt.”

“It is unacceptable for any organization to resort to tactics that have the potential to evoke psychological harm,” especially “without considering the detrimental effects the fake eviction notices would have on residents,” she added.

Students at Columbia University in New York also raised objections to IAW programming on campus, held shortly after the school’s student government voted down a divestment proposal targeting Israel. To promote the week — which pro-Israel student group Students Supporting Israel (SSI) counters with its own Hebrew Liberation Week — SJP and its allied group, Jewish Voice for Peace, hung flyers depicting an Israeli soldier with a red protrusion on his head. Supporters claimed the mark was meant to be a bump from a spray can thrown by a Palestinian character in the image, though critics including SSI and the Columbia Students Association for Israel said it could be interpreted as a horn, invoking centuries-old antisemitic stereotypes. Some SSI members further knocked IAW for hosting a lecture on Zionism and antisemitism featuring Columbia professor Joseph Massad, who does not identify as a Jew or Zionist.

The week provided another outlet on campus for “those students and professors who find a need to voice their extreme anti-Israel and, sometimes, antisemitic views,” said Ofir Dayan, president of Columbia’s SSI.

Elsewhere on the east coast, SJP at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. kicked off IAW with the erection of a mock wall and an informational panel on BDS, held exclusively with BDS supporters. “We recognize that this is a difficult week for many Jewish students on campus,” the Georgetown Israel Alliance wrote in a message to community members, which tabled on campus during IAW to provide a counter-narrative. The group expressed disappointment that IAW “events discourage dialogue and reject the Jewish connection to Israel in favor of a divisive, one-sided narrative,” and added, “To call Israel an apartheid state is a baseless accusation meant to de-legitimize the Jewish state and to deny Jews a homeland.”

At the University of Houston, Barrie Skalsky — a junior and student president of Houston Hillel — described anti-Israel sentiment as a constant challenge on her campus, which intensifies during IAW. “I’ve had many moments of insecurity about sharing my religious identity or political beliefs in classrooms and in social settings,” she wrote in a March op-ed published by the Jewish Herald-Voice. “I won’t wear Hebrew letters on T-shirts or Israel buttons on my backpack. I struggle with telling people I’m involved in Hillel and what that means, or that my favorite place to visit is Israel, because I don’t know how they’ll react.”

“As a Jewish student who loves Israel, Israeli Apartheid Week shakes me to my core,” she continued. “To watch a group of fellow students, people who should embody tolerance and acceptance on a campus that prides itself on diversity, scream at you to ‘go home’ is an experience I don’t wish upon anyone. I’d never experienced anti-Semitism like this before college. I never imagined this would be my reality. I never thought I’d be using my free time to plan pro-Israel demonstrations to counter Israeli Apartheid Week.”

Similar criticisms were voiced elsewhere in North America, including by three students from Canada’s McGill University, the University of Winnipeg, and the University of Manitoba, and an alumnus of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. In a joint op-ed published by the Canadian Jewish News in early April, the authors, who identified themselves as members of B’nai Brith on Campus, which seeks to counter antisemitism, called IAW “the most egregious example” of “radical left-wing anti-Semitism.”

They accused the week of enabling “anti-Semitic bullying under the guise of human rights,” and pointed to IAW’s associations with controversial speakers including former academic Steven Salaita, who has accused “Zionists” of “transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”

“[In] the case of BDS and its proponents – as well as its deviant dog and pony show, IAW – their actions and their words betray their true anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” the group wrote. “All obfuscations aside, BDS and IAW are all too transparent in their bigotry.”

Representatives for IAW did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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