Israeli Apartheid Week ‘turning up the heat’

Ontario legislature unanimously votes to condemn nationwide awareness week

“The Children of Palestine,” an Israeli Apartheid Week exhibit featuring Jon Elmer’s photos, is showing in JDUC room 142 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. this week.
“The Children of Palestine,” an Israeli Apartheid Week exhibit featuring Jon Elmer’s photos, is showing in JDUC room 142 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. this week.
Photo: 

Ontario MPPs condemned Israeli Apartheid Week last Thursday, but events went ahead as scheduled on Queen’s campus this week.

Queen’s chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) organized the week, which aims to raise awareness about the experiences of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories such as the West Bank. The group is calling the occupation “Israeli apartheid.”

The term “apartheid” is commonly used to refer to the system of legal racial segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, where a white minority ruled over and oppressed the rights of black South Africans.

Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman introduced a motion on Feb. 25 to denounce the awareness week, the Toronto Star reported on Feb. 26.

Thirty members of the 107-seat provincial legislature were present for the vote. The MPPs, who were from all three political parties, unanimously endorsed the motion.

Shurman told the Toronto Star on Feb. 26 he thinks comparing the South African experience to the Israel-Palestine situation is unfair because South Africa was a racist regime and Israel is a democratic state.

Queen’s English professor Scott-Morgan Straker said he thinks the term “Israeli apartheid” was deliberately designed to be contentious.

Straker isn’t involved in Israeli Apartheid Week.

“The consensus around the globe in the 1980s ... was that the issue of apartheid in South Africa was wrong and there was absolutely no moral grounds at all by which the system could be defended,” he said. “When you take a term like that and you apply it to a different context, you’re saying these situations are comparable. It’s an attempt to carry the consensus on one issue to another.”

Straker said he thinks using the positive associations people have with certain events and applying them to another can be constructive.

“For instance, there is widespread recognition internationally that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has played an important role in getting people to move beyond entrenched antagonisms,” he said. “When Canada adopted this model to recognize the suffering that residential schools inflicted on Aboriginal children, it made a clear statement. ... It’s a hopeful gesture: let’s hope this model is as successful here as it is there.”

Straker said he thinks the term “Israeli apartheid” is a different case.

“Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians doesn’t inspire the degree of consensus that the international reaction to apartheid did. This appropriation of the term ‘apartheid’ is therefore not hopeful, but polemical,” he said. “It’s taking up an already hot issue and turning up the heat.”

Straker said it’s difficult to judge the effectiveness of using the term.

“There are certain campuses in Canada where this term is likely to produce not just controversy but even violence,” he said. “In a case like that, nothing good can come from using the term.”

Israeli Apartheid Week, which is in its sixth year, was started at the University of Toronto.

In previous years, York University has cancelled events associated with Israeli Apartheid Week, citing security concerns. Israeli Apartheid Weeks at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University have also been met with tensions and university administration has had to get involved in the student initiatives at both campuses.

Last year, Queen’s SPHR organized an inaugural Israeli Apartheid Week, which didn’t meet similar levels of opposition to the other campuses.

“I think the value and appropriateness of this term can only be judged retroactively,” Straker said. “Insofar as it gets people involved and thoughtful, then that is a good thing. ... If what it involves are people coming out and shouting slogans, retrenched in positions they already hold, then I don’t think it accomplishes anything.”

Straker said he thinks there’s no way to use the term “apartheid” neutrally.

“When so much human suffering has been put under the umbrella of a certain term, they own that term forever,” he said. “None of these terms is ever objective. They can’t be. They always have a great deal of emotional investment in them because blood is being spilled over them.”

Straker said he thinks students have a right to criticize the actions of the Israeli state if they see it as being unfair to Palestinians.

“For the [Ontario] government to step in and say the students aren’t allowed to have Israeli Apartheid Week is completely inappropriate,” he said. “If as a result of Israeli Apartheid Week there was even one act of violence on one campus that could be traced to the use of that term, I would hope the student groups themselves would voluntarily change that term.”

Margaret Pappano, English professor and founding member of the Queen’s chapter of Faculty 4 Palestine, told the Journal in an e-mail she thinks the term “Israeli apartheid” reflects the situation in the occupied territories.

Pappano spoke at an Israeli Apartheid Week event on Tuesday.

“I believe that the use of the term ‘apartheid’ is an accurate descriptor for the Bantustan-like conditions of occupied Palestine,” she said. “As I myself witnessed, Palestinians’ freedom of movement is severely restricted; Palestinians must carry special identity cards that demarcate their area of passage; they are not allowed on certain roads and in certain areas of their own country. They must wait for hours—sometimes even days—at checkpoints and undergo humiliating interrogations at gunpoint.”

Pappano said she thinks Israeli Apartheid Week is an opportunity for students to learn a different perspective of the Israel-Palestine debate than what’s often presented in mainstream media.

Joshua Zelikovitz, spokesperson for Queen’s Israel on Campus, said he thinks the use of the term “Israeli apartheid” to create a comparison with the South African regime is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state.

“I think that [Israeli Apartheid Week] is a hurtful and invalid analogy,” he said. “It really creates further divide between Palestinians and Israelis working towards a peaceful, two-state solution.”

Zelikovitz said he thinks the term shuts down dialogue.

“By nature of its false analogy and the hurtful associations with that false analogy, it ends dialogue,” he said. “[Israeli Apartheid Week] really contributes nothing to meaningful discussion.”

Zelikovitz said he supports the Ontario government’s motion to condemn the week but doesn’t think they should pursue further action against Israeli Apartheid Week.

“I disagree with [the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week] but they certainly have a right to say what they want,” he said. “Universities are about the free exchange of ideas.”

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