This week on campuses across the country, student activists are gathering for film screenings, poetry readings, talks and actions to acknowledge Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Now in its tenth year, IAW seeks to raise awareness about Israeli apartheid and encourage support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. (For a primer on Israeli apartheid, go here, and visit the BDS website or rabble’s activist toolkit blog to learn more about BDS ). IAW continues to incite controversy in many corners of the country. But as a movement that seeks to build solidarity, spread awareness and take concrete action, this week also offers an exemplary snapshot of where student activism in Canada is today.

Israeli apartheid week is being held on campuses in at least nine different Canadian cities this year and is usually organized by the Palestinian Solidarity Network, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) or Students for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR). One mainstay event in IAW each year is education and awareness-raising on what Israeli apartheid is. For instance, IAW in Edmonton opened on Monday an event called “Apartheid – What’s In a Name?” that focused on comparing the South African and Israeli models. The term “apartheid” is not only an analogy to the oppression of the black South African majority in that country from 1948 to 1994, but also to the 1973 UN definition which declared apartheid a crime against humanity. Nevertheless, the BDS movement and IAW organizers have always taken cues from the divestment movement against South African apartheid that occurred in the 1980s. Chand, an organizer with Students Against Israeli Apartheid who preferred not to use her full name, says that since the inception of IAW there have “always been linkages to South Africa and South African comrades … on the ground” – including support from the African National Congress, the group that was once considered a terrorist organization in South Africa and is now its ruling party. Former ANC representative Yusuf Salojee spoke this year at IAW events in London and Toronto, further strengthening ties between current and past anti-apartheid movements. “The ANC has not only officially endorsed BDS,” says Chand, “but it also just announced on March 2nd that it is behind students and the student movement and has endorsed Israeli Apartheid Week.” 

While educating students on Israeli apartheid and the BDS movement has always been a priority, in recent years activists have always used IAW as a springboard for specific BDS-related actions. For example, in previous years organizers for IAW in Edmonton used IAW to encourage Mountain Equipment Co-op to stop importing products produced on settlements. This year, SPHR at the University of Ottawa had two concrete goals for IAW: first, to encourage the university to cease its exchange program with the University of Haifa in Israel, and second, to call for the school’s food services to stop selling Sabra brand hummus. According to SPHR, “Sabra’s parent company–the Strauss Group—is an Israeli company that is a proud financial supporter of the notoriously violent Israeli army brigade, the Golani brigade.” Assma Basalamah, a U of O law student and spokesperson for SPHR, says that her group is hoping to garner more student support after food services refused to consider the boycott. They “initially responded that they would meet with us,” Basamalah says, “but eventually when they asked about the content of the conversation . . . they said that they are an apolitical entity and that they are not ready to remove the product.”

Another key component of IAW in 2014 is solidarity with other Canadian student and social justice movements. Siavash Saffari, an academic instructor at the University of Alberta who has organized IAW in Edmonton since 2009, reflects that “another overall goal of these events is to basically build networks of solidarity and cooperation with the grassroots movements that are happening in Canada with a focus on social justice.” SAIA in Toronto has organized a talk on “Resisting Settler Colonial States through Global Solidarities and Activist Campaigns” as well as an Indigenous resistance cultural night, to strengthen ties between Palestinian and Indigenous activism in Canada. As the fossil fuel divestment movement gains speed in Canada, pro-Palestinian students are also finding allies in environmental activists on university campuses. SPHR in Ottawa has joined forces with mining injustice and anti-fossil fuel activists to form CIJIC, or Just Investment Coalition, to “advocate for more transparent and ethical social practices at the University of Ottawa.”

Because IAW engages with such a politically sensitive issue, many students have experienced pushback from peers or university administrations when organizing events. BDS and IAW have been lambasted as anti-Semitic campaigns (indeed, Stephen Harper only recently equated any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism), although most pro-Palestinian activists emphasize the distinction between racism and critiques of the Israeli state. At the University of Manitoba last year, the student union banned Students Against Israeli Apartheid after a Jewish student brought forward a motion citing the union’s anti-harassment policy. However, student unions at other schools have recently been more supportive of IAW. At least nine student unions in Canada have officially endorsed IAW, including unions at the University of Toronto Scarborough, York University and, most recently, the University of Windsor.

On campuses where IAW has only recently become an annual event, student organizers are still focused on spreading awareness about the meaning of Israeli apartheid and educating their peers about the goals of the BDS movement. Marie Rioux, an events coordinator for SPHR at the University of Western Ontario, thinks that “Western is still in need of a lot of awareness raising. This year the focus of IAW is to highlight intersectionality and the ways that other liberation struggles must be tied to anti-imperial struggles and to Palestinian solidarity.”

Chand similarly recalls that during the early years of IAW in Toronto students would host a lot of “Apartheid 101”-style events, but that organizers have been able to move beyond the basics in recent years. “The focus in the initial years was on trying to raise awareness around how Israel enacts apartheid policies and how it violates international law in relationship to apartheid policies,” she says. “Over the years we’ve also transformed into ensuring that the BDS campaign is being built, and so as the apartheid analogy is being understood we go deeper and deeper into practice and action . . . the focus has not shifted, it’s just that the focus is deepening.”

Image: Aya Dama

Christina Turner

Christina Turner

Christina Turner grew up in Toronto and spent five years in Halifax, where she earned a BA from the University of King’s College. She then picked up and moved to the opposite side of the continent,...