The Legislative Assembly of Ontario unanimously passed a resolution condemning Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) last Thursday, taking particular issue with use of the term “apartheid” in conjunction with Israeli policy. The province’s actions have prompted Conservative MP Tim Uppal from Edmonton to announce that he will table a similar motion in the House of Commons next week.
IAW is an annual series of educational events that take place at over 40 universities and colleges around the world with an aim to “educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement,” according to the IAW web site. Montreal’s sixth IAW begins today with events held at McGill and Concordia.
MPP Peter Shurman, who tabled the motion in Ontario, argued that the use of the term “apartheid” in relation to Israel bordered on hate speech and offended those who experienced apartheid in South Africa.
“It’s a provocatively charged word and it’s presumptive: if you say something is apartheid then, hey, it must be – there is certainly not consensus on that. If we’re talking about Israel let’s discuss it – let’s not have a one-sided diatribe about it, which is what IAW is about,” Shurman said.
According to Shurman, the resolution passed in the Ontario legislature is intended to have moral suasion, but does not prohibit the week from continuing. However, it is likely that student organizers in Ontario will continue with the week as planned.
“It’s ironic how these politicians can find the time to condemn [IAW] and silence student activism and student voice, but they can’t find time to condemn Israeli’s crimes on and systematic oppression of the Palestinian people,” said Yafa Jarrar, member of the Students against Apartheid at Carelton University. “They are trying to systematically suppress our freedom of speech and our activism. But we will not be silenced.”
Organizers of the IAW in Montreal argued that the event is meant to be a week of open discussions and that the decision to use the term “apartheid” is based on the policies implemented in Israel that have segregated Palestinians living in the region.
“The reason we’re calling it Israeli apartheid is because it is what it is. The policies that Israel has been implementing against the Palestinian people show a systematic tendency of alienating and separating them. Apartheid means separateness, and the racially policies that Israel has passed have an unquestionable goal of segregating the Palestinians,” said Nina Amrov, a member of the IAW organizing committee and of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights– National.
Scott Weinstein from Independent Jewish Voices said there are many Jewish individuals who support IAW and are involved in organizing the week. He also explained that the term “apartheid” is intended to be provocative and spark debate – though it has not been as successful as hoped.
“[We] have begged, pleaded, and invited our counterparts in the Zionist movement to debate us…[but] they absolutely refuse. They don’t want there to be a public discussion about any profound criticism of Zionism and the nature of racism in the Jewish state,” said Weinstein. “If they would guarantee a public debate on the issue and they don’t want us to use the word apartheid, then sure, that’s not an issue – but they won’t debate with us, not yet.”
MPP Shurman warned that apartheid does not exist in Israel and that the association the term creates between Israel and the South African apartheid regime is inaccurate. “You cannot make something true just by saying it is. Just because there’s a week called Israeli Apartheid Week doesn’t support that there is apartheid in Israel – because there isn’t; apartheid has only taken place in one place, South Africa,” said Shurman.
However, supporters of IAW were quick to point out that “apartheid” is a term that has been used to describe Israel by many individuals involved in the fight against South African apartheid, and that Israeli policies fit the definition of apartheid as articulated by the UN International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid of 1973.
Emanuel Lowi, a former editor at Haaretz in Israel who describes himself as an observant Canadian Jew, discussed the criticism of Israel by South African leaders. “The best people [to judge whether it is] apartheid are the people in South Africa who fought against apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has come out very strongly against Israel. [Tutu said that] what Israel has been doing to the Palestinian people in many ways is not only reminiscent of South Africa, but is worse than it. Nelson Mandela has come out against the Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians,” said Lowi.
Mookie Kideckel, president of Hillel McGill, pointed out that Jewish students on campus often feel singled out and targeted by talks of Israeli apartheid. “Israel is a democratic country; it’s made a lot of efforts for peace. It’s also something that’s emotionally tied to the majority of Jewish students,” Kideckel said. “By seeking to delegitimize Israel, [IAW] effectively makes a lot of Jewish students feel delegitimized. A lot of the agony and fear from the week comes from the idea that it really obsessively singles out Israel, and makes a lot of Jewish students connected to it feel singled out unfairly.”
Lowi tried to address the fears that Jewish students are experiencing. “The students who are scared, they have to think about what it is they should do to protect our people from being discredited by being associated to despicable acts committed in our names [by the Israeli government], and it is to speak out against it,” said Lowi.