What is Israel Apartheid Week?

5 03 2009


This week marks what many call “Israel Apartheid Week,” a seven-day global campaign around university campuses and other areas, organized for Palestine and “Palestinian solidarity.” This is the fifth year of the program, and it seems to be gaining a lot of momentum among youth. This year, more than 40 cities are participating in this campaign around the world, up from only 25 last year. What do people do during this week? They attend lectures and panels, go to art performances and watch documentary screenings about Palestine. The big message here, if you haven’t gotten it already, is comparing Israeli policies toward Palestinians to those British apartheid policies towards South Africans. Around the New York University area, Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) is quite loud and aggressive, if not plain old angry.

Despite my years in New York, this is the first time I hear of this campaign (you can blame my past nonchalance). The first thing I did when I heard about IAW was to search for the word “apartheid” in my old-fashioned, yet dirt-less, Webster’s dictionary. Here is what I found: “Apartheid” is an Afrikaans word that got integrated into English. It means separateness in its original language. Today it is used to describe the official policy of racial segregation that was practiced in South Africa between 1950 and 1991. It stretches out to mean any policy of racial segregation forced by the oppressor on the oppressed.

I thought it was odd, at first, to bring such deep South African experience to this conflict. After Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip this past January, however, it seems that more people find a resemblance between the Palestinian situation and that of South Africa during the British days.

Jewish and Israeli students and organizations have launched a counter campaign against Israel Apartheid Week. There were many events at New York University. The Cantor Film Center, for example, screened the documentary “The Case for Israel: Democracy’s Outpost,” based on Harvard University professor, Alan Dershowitz’s, bestseller book. The David Project, an organization for Jewish leadership with a center in New York, posted a response to the IAW on its website, instructing Jewish youth on how to refute the claims against Israel in a smart and civilized manner.

Not all of the David Project’s ideas are convincing and truthful, just as some of Israel Apartheid Week’s claims are hot-headed and aggressive. All this week has accomplished, it seems, is radicalization; pulling further away from moderation and towards extremes. The pro-Palestine folks begin to point the fingers again, and the pro-Israel folks begin to defend their country across the board. In some of the events on campus, anger at Israel was very apparent. In many ways, this Israel Apartheid Week takes us backwards instead of moving forward. As a young Rabbi told me during a casual chat, you can’t have an Israel Apartheid Week and still want dialogue. What if Jews and Israelis began a “Palestinian Terrorism Week”? Or “Suicide Bomber Who Kills Civilians Week”? How would Palestine supporters think and react to that?

You must understand here that I’m not taking sides. The IAW has done a great job in telling the Palestinian part of the story, educating people about the people’s struggle. But the story is so very complicated, and education comes best when it’s in an environment of tolerance and understanding, not hostility and blame. Being inclined to one side than the other is natural, if not encouraged, but the problem is when you get blinded and can only see one side.

This year is shaping to become one of further seperation and dispute among youth in the conflict, away from moderation. We need to continue to resist that easy temptation.



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