2012 Apartheid Week stoked fewer fires, but put none out
The week is notorious for heavy-handed tactics like “apartheid walls” and mock checkpoints at universities all over the world. It is surrounded by passionate arguments from the pro-Palestinian side and equally charged counterpoints from pro-Israel groups. And though it is often a week of heated politics on college campuses, this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week, held Feb. 28-March 3, seemed quieter than usual.
While reactions came in different forms from different pro-Israel groups, they were almost unanimous in their embrace of a new strategy this year: Avoid a direct attack on pro-Palestinian groups in response to Israeli Apartheid Week. As Brandeis University marked its first ever Israeli Apartheid Week, fighting was absent on campus as pro-Israel groups celebrated Israeli life and culture in place of the usual conflict between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups.
“From what I have seen, not many people have been interested,” said Daniel Hammerman, a freshman at American University who is involved with AU Students for Israel. “I didn’t see anyone going over to the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] tables when they were advertising.”
“Don’t go negative,” advised David Project Executive Director David Bernstein in a Tablet Magazine piece that included advice for Zionists and pro-Israel students in their response to the eighth annual IAW. A recent report by the David Project suggests that reacting loudly to events like IAW only helps raise their public profile.
“In an environment trending negative, the best approach is not to ‘respond’ but to promote,” Bernstein wrote. “When we spend our energy responding to anti-Israel accusations, we engage the battle on our adversaries’ terms—not ours,” he said.
“For three years, we have passed the Apartheid Wall, analyzed leaflets, and skimmed fact sheets, but what do we have to show for it?” Columbia University Hillel Israel Coordinator Ariel Brickman wrote in an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator. “Three years later, can C-SJP [Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine] and Hillel’s four pro-Israel groups say that the conversation has moved forward at all? The answer is that, sadly, it has not, and neither have we,” she wrote.
And so, as pro-Palestinian groups organized speakers and panels to discuss Israel as an apartheid state, the political discourse stayed civil and quiet between the ordinarily combative sides. The week, however, had just a few notable exceptions. A pro-Israel group attacked a mock checkpoint with water balloons at the London School of Economics. At an IAW event near the campus of the University of California, Berkeley a group of neutral interlopers were pepper-sprayed by pro-Israel protesters. While Egyptian American Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel, spoke at the University of New Mexico, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters interrupted with an Occupy-style “mic check.” But these were outlier incidents, uncharacteristic of the rest of the week’s events.
“We really don’t want to be reactive to any sort of thing, so we’re really more proactive,” said Sarah Levine, president of AU Students for Israel. “We just decided we wanted to be a point of reference for more information during Apartheid Week, because we don’t want to go and counter anything that SJP does,” Levine said.
Talks by prominent speakers were one of the main tactics of the pro-Palestinian side on many campuses. Reverend John Fife, Chairperson of the Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment, took the podium on day three of IAW in Tucson to discuss corporate divestment as a model to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The BDS movement (the controversial movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel) serves as one of the main factors in organizing IAW.
Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah was welcomed on multiple campuses, including Brandeis. He praised the school in particular for joining the dialogue in its first year holding Israeli Apartheid Week. In previous years, a similar event called Israeli Occupation Week took place at Brandeis.
Abunimah advocated his vision for a one-state solution, a democracy with Arab and Jewish citizens. The idea is the subject of a growing discussion among people who believe that an unjust one-state situation already exists in Israel-Palestine.
Some IAW events were less political, such as screenings of documentaries. AU featured Palestinian activist and poet Remi Kanazi on Friday.
Yet despite the controversy of the IAW speakers among pro-Israel students, protests were rare this year.
Left-wing pro-Israel students countered IAW by hosting events acknowledging Israel’s problems, while focusing on ways to fix them. Columbia University students attended a roundtable discussion with students involved in social change NGOs in Israel and an interview with Uri Zaki of B’tselem USA, the American branch of an Israeli NGO that monitors human rights in the Occupied Territories. Zaki also appeared at the University of California, Los Angeles at an event organized by UCLA’s chapter of J Street U, the campus branch of the center-left pro-Israel lobby J Street.
Pro-Israel students on the right focused their efforts on celebrating Israel’s successes and giving the country a human face. Of the most prominent efforts, Israel Peace Week stormed over 75 campuses last week, according to organizers. Their goal was to promote positive images of Israel, through Israeli food, music and celebrations.
“It’s so hard to characterize the student body and their political opinions on Israel. It’s nearly impossible. But everyone who’s been to Israel, who knows something about Israel can really connect to the culture and it’s a lot more universal,” said sophomore Avi Fuld, vice president of BZA and a campus coordinator for Hasbara Fellowships, the organization that started Israel Peace Week.
Although Israel Peace Week was held during the same week as IAW, the two were unrelated, according to organizers. “Israel Peace Week was not in opposition in any way toward Israeli Apartheid Week. It wasn’t in any way reactive towards Israeli Apartheid Week,” said Pinchus Polack, president of the Brandeis Zionist Alliance, who helped organize Israel Peace Week at Brandeis. “It was merely a way of expressing a manifestation of Israeli culture; it was nothing more than that. We were not reacting. We weren’t trying to engage with SJP. We were trying to just really express Israeli culture,” he explained.
Israel Peace Week is funded by Hasbara Fellowships, a nationwide program that trains students to be pro-Israel activists on campus and a project of the Aish International ultra-Orthodox outreach organization. Although Hasbara and Aish both have strong right-wing political overtones, Israel Peace Week was organized on an individual basis by students on each campus where it was held.
“Hasbara did not intervene in any way with any of the programming happening on campus, except for the fact that they sponsored us and gave us money,” Polack said. “Otherwise the events were completely made by the students, there was no Hasbara influence in terms of the actual ideology and thinking behind the programming,” he said.
To celebrate Israel, the Brandeis Zionist Alliance organized Tel Aviv club night on Saturday night. Though the pro-Israel group chose not to protest any specific IAW events, the pro-Palestinian side showed up outside the event on Saturday night holding protest signs that read, “Palestinian Prisoners can’t party so why should you?”
The protest, however, had little impact on the event, according to BZA organizers. “People aren’t going to stop partying because people are yelling a bunch of random slurs outside in the hall,” Fuld said.
“Even though apartheid is a much more radical term — and they knew that using it this year — there was much less response to it,” Fuld said of the switch from Israeli Occupation Week to Israeli Apartheid Week at Brandeis. “I think people are exhausted from responding to them. They always make a commotion; they were protesting Tel Aviv club night. It was a party celebrating Tel Aviv culture and they were protesting that. I think they tarnish their legitimacy and validity when they do that.”
Despite the protests, SJP acknowledged the truth in much of what Israel Peace Week promoted. “SJP wrote a little blurb, which they gave out to people when they were protesting at Tel Aviv Club night and they acknowledged that there’s a lot to thank Israel for, like technological innovations,” Polack said. “It’s undisputed that Israel is a huge benefactor when it comes to the overall social benefit towards humanity.”
Despite the usual chaos surrounding IAW, it seems this year’s went out without a bang.
Dafna Fine is a junior at Brandeis University studying economics and journalism. She served on the Brandeis Orthodox Organization Board during her freshman year and now works for The Justice.
Zach C. Cohen contributed additional reporting from American University.