The nasty nonsense of Israel Apartheid Week
Why are student activists so blinkered on the issue of Israel?
When I was a student there was a popular drinking game called Centurion. Each student taking part is given a shot glass and a sick bucket. The aim is to do one shot of beer per minute for 100 minutes, and the sick bucket is so you can carry on poisoning yourself as fast as your body can reject it.
Yes, students have long been masters of the stupid and pointless. But sadly, in recent years, this grand tradition has seeped beyond the realms of mild alcohol poisoning for self-amusement into the sphere of university politics.
A case in point came last week with the eleventh annual Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). According to the campaign’s website, the aim of IAW is: ‘To educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns.’ What it amounts to on campus is pseudo-Israeli checkpoints, so-called apartheid walls and students wielding fake machine guns at each other. Leaflets on BDS are pushed on to all passing students and a steady stream of anti-Israel speakers and films is given priority in lecture halls and students’ union buildings all week.
It is stupid for many reasons, but the main one is that its premise is simply not true. Whatever you think of the way the Israeli government handles Gaza, Israel is not and never has been an apartheid state. In the upcoming Israeli election, the predominantly Arab party, the Joint Arab List, which includes Palestinian members, stands to win about 12 seats. To label the country an apartheid state does a great injustice to the decades of suffering of black South Africans under Afrikaner National Party rule.
But sadly this (literally) black-and-white thinking on Israel is now widespread among the anti-Israel brigade. It is, after all, much easier to get people onside if you can make them think a highly complex political situation is really just a case of goodies vs baddies. This kind of narrow-minded, one-sided debate is not worthy of the academic institutions in which it takes place, nor does it actually improve the situation for Palestinians. Do deluded IAW promoters really think that boycotting Sainsbury’s because it sells hummus will have any effect on what happens in Israel? Just last week it was announced that more Israeli companies were listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2014 than of any other foreign country. The Israeli economy is certainly not feeling the BDS pinch.
But, of course, that is not the point. IAW is not about helping Palestinians, or achieving peace in the Middle East; it is about demonising Israel. And numerous campuses across the country are complicit in this.
Anti-Israel thinking on campus has become so prevalent that it is not even restricted to IAW. When the London School of Economics (LSE) invited Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub to speak at a public meeting, protesters blocked students from entering the event, and midway during the talk someone set off the fire alarm. Anti-Israel protesters are notorious for this kind of behaviour. Rather than posing questions and entering into free and open debates with pro-Israel speakers, they heckle, stage walkouts and pull stunts.
At the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the students’ union has taken its anti-Israel agenda several steps further. To coincide with IAW, it held a school-wide ‘referendum’ for an academic boycott of Israel. The ‘Yes’ campaign was led by the SU chairs themselves, ensuring the alienation of Jewish and pro-Israel students alike – they were isolated by their own union representatives.
For that is the effect of stunts like IAW. By demonising Israel it also demonises people who disagree that Israel is an apartheid state. The message is: if you are pro-Israel you are pro-apartheid, therefore you are a bad person. It is sadly Jewish students who often bear the brunt of this over-simplification. They spend IAW ‘intimidated’, ‘uncomfortable’, and some even avoid going to class.
Ironically, it is often campuses with Safe Space policies, promising zero tolerance of harassment and intimidation, that choose to look the other way when it comes to IAW. A gross double standard is at play within UK students’ unions and student bodies when it comes to Israel. There is no special week on campus dedicated to condemning countries with atrocious human-rights records, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, and foreign students have not so far boycotted the UK for causing far more death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan than Israel ever has in Gaza. So why is Israel always singled out?
By promoting stunts like IAW, students are ignoring the grey areas and nuance of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is possible to be pro-Israel, but disagree with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, or be pro-Palestinian, but against BDS. There are plenty of people who support Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinians’ right to their own state, yet pro-Israel voices on campus are drowned out by accusations of apartheid and calls for BDS.
IAW promoters are shutting down open debate on Israel and Palestine by shoving their one-sided hyperbole down the throats of other students. Like Centurion, the best place for this poison is the sick bucket.
Naomi Firsht is a reporter for the Jewish Chronicle.