By Omar Radwan
This week is the sixth annual “Israeli Apartheid Week”, a series of events including lectures, film screenings, workshops, rallies and other activities highlighting Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people. The focus is mainly on Israel’s denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, its occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, and its construction of the so-called security fence in the West Bank. Israeli Apartheid Week is designed to promote support for the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This year it is being marked in more than 40 cities across the world including Cape Town, Toronto, Rome and San Francisco. In London, the events include a lecture on the applicability of universal jurisdiction following the war crimes committed in Gaza and a screening of the film “Yizkor: Slaves of Memory”, Israeli director Eyan Sivan’s take on the way Israeli children are indoctrinated in Zionism. Several Israelis are among the speakers.
Since 2005, Israeli Apartheid Week has spread awareness across the world of Israel’s racist oppression of the Palestinian people and the crimes it commits against them. It has enjoyed considerable success in countering the myth that Israel is an embattled democracy defending itself against Palestinian terrorism, particularly on university campuses. This is probably why the event is now under sustained attack from Zionists and their fellow-travellers. Opposing “weeks” have been announced by Zionist organizations at North American universities, such as “Peace Week” at Columbia University in New York and “IDF Week” at York University in Toronto, which purports to counter “the lies and deceptions of Israeli Apartheid Week”. In Canada, in fact, the legislative assembly of the Province of Ontario passed unanimously a resolution condemning Israeli Apartheid Week, while Conservative assembly member Peter Shurman called it an attack on “Canadian values” and said, “The use of the phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ is about as close to hate speech as one can get without being arrested, and I’m not certain it doesn’t actually cross over that line”.
Meanwhile Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, issued a statement saying, “Israeli Apartheid Week will once again attempt to demonize and undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state… It should be condemned unequivocally and absolutely. Apartheid is defined, in international law, as a crime against humanity. Israeli Apartheid Week is a deliberate attempt to portray the Jewish state as criminal.” This is the same Michael Ignatieff, who in 2002, before he decided to embark on a political career, wrote in the Guardian newspaper, “When I looked down at the West Bank, at the settlements like Crusader forts occupying the high ground, at the Israeli security cordon along the Jordan river closing off the Palestinian lands from Jordan, I knew I was not looking down at a state or the beginnings of one, but at a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control.”
One charge levelled against Israeli Apartheid Week is that the analogy that it makes is “insulting to those who suffered under apartheid”. This remark was made by David Katz, a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews who grew up in apartheid South Africa. However, the current South African government has itself described Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes as “reminiscent of apartheid forced removals”. In 1989, when the apartheid regime was still in power in South Africa, leading anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu said, “If I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa”.
Since then, the situation in the Palestinian territories has, if anything, become much worse, especially in Gaza. In 2006, a delegation of 21 South African human rights activists, most of them veteran anti-apartheid campaigners and several of them Jewish, visited Nablus and said that the situation there was worse than anything they had seen under apartheid, with the city virtually besieged by Israeli army checkpoints which not even those in need of urgent medical treatment could pass through. One activist, Mondli Makhanya said, “The apartheid regime viewed the blacks as inferior; I do not think the Israelis see the Palestinians as human beings at all.” The situation in Gaza today is even worse than that which existed in Nablus in 2006, with an Israeli blockade in force which is deliberately designed to inflict suffering and destitution. The moniker “Israeli Apartheid Week” is, if anything, too mild. The threat by Peter Shurman to have the whole series of events banned in Canada on the grounds that its name constitutes “hate speech” is just another example of the narrowing of freedom of expression of the West. If politicians like him have their way, we may soon see the day when any criticism of Israel and its policies is banned. Meanwhile Michael Ignatieff’s willingness to change his views in such a shamelessly opportunistic manner shows the moral bankruptcy present at the highest levels of Canadian politics. However, the ongoing success of Israeli Apartheid Week and similar campaigns, and the growing realisation in the West of the true nature of Israel’s occupation, suggests that Israel can no longer rely on politicians of Ignatieff’s and Shurman’s ilk to safeguard its image and its interests in North America and Europe.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.