The sixth annual Israeli Apartheid Week is back again in Montreal, and will be featuring events on three campuses in the city from March 4 to 11.
Every year for the last six years, many cities (43 cities participated last year) around the world join together to coordinate this week, which focuses on the growing campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against the state of Israel. And this year, like every year in the past, pro-Israel apologists respond with campaigns which range from outright offensive to bizarre and puzzling.
Critics have accused Israeli Apartheid Week of trying to shut down dialogue and debate on the Israel/Palestine issue, when in fact IAW is striving to create more spaces for these issues to be discussed in a serious and scholarly manner on campuses. What is interesting is that critics of IAW often avoid taking the debate head-on. Rather, the response is often either to try to ban IAW from campuses altogether or to create distraction games.
Last week, pro-Israel groups at Canadian universities launched a campaign called Size Doesn”t Matter. Craftily timed to coincide with the launch of IAW on campuses, Size Doesn”t Matter boasts a flashy website which tries to deflect attention away from the uglier sides of the debate (occupation, the siege on Gaza, Palestinian refugees) while trying to re-brand Israel as a happy-go-lucky, innovative and sexy country.
Size Doesn”t Matter represents an evolution, albeit a miniature one, in pro-Israel distraction campaigns over the years, which have also taken the form of “Islamo-fascism Week” at York University and “Israeli Culture Fests” held in Montreal. I suppose that when you don”t have many winning arguments to contest why Israel isn”t an apartheid state, it”s much easier to talk about falafel, techno music and pretty girls in bikinis on the Tel Aviv beach. I mean, everyone loves those things, right?
And then there”s the more extreme responses to IAW, such as the ones that are put forward by so-called “human rights” groups like B”nai Brith. On Feb. 25, they issued a press release applauding members of the Ontario legislature who had put forward a motion to condemn IAW. What”s more, the organization is calling for an “outright ban on “Israeli Apartheid Week”” for the second year in a row. With more and more universities starting IAWs every year, they are evidently failing miserably.
This year, IAW is taking place in the context of a right-wing government in Israel which has continued to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank, despite American President Barack Obama”s empty talk of a freeze on new settlement construction. It”s taking place in the context of the 1.5 million Gazans who, still reeling from last year”s brutal massacre, can”t event import basic construction supplies to rebuild their shattered homes. More importantly, IAW is happening in the context of a tireless campaign of censorship and muzzling from pro-Israel activists, but it is coming out on top.
IAW and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israeli apartheid are threatening to some because they are working. For one, it is a non-violent campaign aimed at social justice for everyone in the Middle East and if Israel”s supporters want non-violent solutions to the problem, then surely BDS is what they”ve been looking for.
In the five years since the the call was issued by Palestinian civil society, there have been major victories as well. Last week, a group of over 500 Montreal-based artists issued a declaration in support of the BDS campaign. Large labour unions and student federations in Quebec and Canada have also pledged their support. Last year, Hampshire College in Massachusetts became the first educational institution in North America to cut its ties to Israel, and just recently, students at Carleton University in Ottawa launched a campaign to push their campus to do the same. Indeed, this is a movement which is gaining momentum.
Finally, there is the old, tired claim that initiatives such as IAW are anti-Semitic and promote hatred against Jews. For years pro-Israel groups have been fishing this argument out of the trash, dusting it off and trying to repackage it. It is a large claim with little substance and negates the fact that BDS is a social justice movement supported by thousands of Jews around the world.
It is often said that you can measure the strength of a social movement by the reactive impulses of its opponents. The fact that IAW is back for another year at Concordia and across Canada, despite the outright attempts to censor it, is in itself a major victory. To the state of Israel and its supporters, size may not matter, but IAW is gaining steam, and they will soon have a lot of questions to answer.
Aaron Lakoff is a communications student at Concordia and a member of Not in Our Name, an anti-Zionist Jewish group on campus.