Israeli Apartheid Week beats back attacks on free speech

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Despite intense government and media attacks, Israeli Apartheid Week was a big success this year. The annual student-based week of lectures and film showings, held March 1-8 in 13 cities across Canada, was marked by packed halls and respectful, attentive and passionate debate. Attendance at daily events peaked at 500 in Toronto and Ottawa, and 400 in Montreal.

As in previous years, Israeli Apartheid Week in Canada included presentations by indigenous leaders on their liberation struggle in this country. Internationally, Israeli Apartheid Week events were held in more than 40 cities, double last year's total. The favourable response showed that understanding of Israeli Apartheid has been deepened by Israel's brutal assault on Gaza in December, in which 1,300 Palestinians were massacred.

The word "apartheid," first utilized by the white-supremacist regime in South Africa, accurately describes Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which steals Palestinian land while enclosing the Palestinian people in walled Bantustans. It also applies to the systemic discrimination against Palestinians inside Israel and to that country's defiance of United Nations resolutions providing for the return of Palestinian refugees.

Global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions

Israeli Apartheid Week supports the international campaign for boycott, divestments and sanctions against apartheid Israel, launched in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations.

The campaign demands an end to Israeli occupation of Arab lands, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees as stipulated in United Nations resolution 194.

Government intimidation

Despite the success of Israeli Apartheid Week, we must not underestimate the gravity of the government-led attacks on the event, which aimed not merely to discredit it but to prevent it from taking place.

Speaking in the House of Commons March 3, Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, gave lip-service to the principle that "Canadians are free to express different views about the policies of foreign government," but insisted that "Israel Apartheid Week is not about that. ... We condemn these efforts to single out and attack the Jewish people and their homeland." His clear implication was that these events --which are in fact free of even the slightest hint of hostility to Jews --- are in violation of Canada's laws against "hate propaganda."

Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff quickly joined in. Israeli Apartheid Week "goes beyond reasonable criticism," he stated, because it "singles out one state, its citizens and its supporters for condemnation and exclusion." (National Post, March 5, 2009)

Both Kenney and Ignatieff claimed that the event victimizes Jewish students, who are therefore "feeling increasingly vulnerable" (Kenney) and "wary of expressing their opinions, for fear of intimidation" (Ignatieff).

The attacks on Israeli Apartheid Week are part of a wider campaign of government reprisals against critics of Israel. Kenney has assailed the Ontario Canadian Union of Public Employees for a pro-Palestinian resolution that he said "may have helped spark" a supposed incident where "anti-Israel slogans were shouted at Jewish students." (Globe and Mail, February 24) And, in response to criticism from Canadian Arab Federation President Khaled Mouammar, Kenney threatened to withdraw $447,000 in funding for CAF projects that teach English and provide job skills. (Sun Media, February 17)

Unfounded charges

The government's claims that students have been intimidated encourages universities to crack down on Palestinian advocacy. A pretext for this repression is provided by lurid and fabricated media reports about campus harassment of Jews.

Take for example, a pro-Palestine demonstration at York University in Toronto February 11. Following the action, a York student paper published a critical report by Jonathan Blake Karoly that cited only one incident viewed as offensive: a pro-Palestinian student had pulled his Keffiyah scarf up to his cover nose and mouth. Karoly termed that action "tantamount to racism and discrimination."

Accusations then escalated rapidly. On February 13, the National Post quoted [email protected] President Daniel Ferman as saying demonstrators had shouted "dirty Jew" and "f---ing Jew." Strangely, none of the reporters present heard that.  (For a fuller account of this episode, including references, see Dan Freeman-Maloy, "The Israeli Advocacy Push to Reclaim York University," in Znet, March 2, 2009.)

When the story was repeated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency later that day, other unattributed quotes were added, such as: "Die bitch, go back to Israel." Then, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Jewish students had been "held captive"; people were "banging on walls and screaming things like 'death to the Jews.'"

On February 14, advertisements paid for by B'nai Brith, a prominent defender of Israeli policy, declared that "there have been documented cases of assaults on Jewish students," to which police forces "all too often turn a blind eye."

It is hardly surprising, in this atmosphere, that the National Post could report as fact that "a Jewish student was physically assaulted" at York even though the reporter admitted that he had not been able to verify that the incident at all. That, he said, was "immaterial," because students feel "it could happen."

The Big Lie

The media have published many such charges -- always without names or direct quotations. Opponents of pro-Palestinian protests have filmed them extensively and produced many videos, without recording a single incriminating statement or action.

When 15,000 people gather for a demonstration, it is always possible for a couple of individuals -- possibly right-wing or police plants -- to act irresponsibly in front of a video camera. Yet nothing like that was recorded.

One of the right-wing videos, entitled "Peace on Campus," found nothing better to display than standard images of political controversy -- heated discussions, demonstrations, waving flags -- while a solemn voice intones the words: "Intimidation. Prejudice. Hostility. Discrimination. Fear."

It is the debate itself that they fear.

Even without any foundation in fact, such a high-voltage scare campaign can be intimidating. Jewish and other students are indeed being harassed -- by media and government scare tactics.

Is Zionism beyond criticism?

The government of Stephen Harper, of course, does not rest its case solely on false reports of anti-Jewish harassment. His minister Jason Kenney, addressing the House of Commons March 3, accuses Israeli Apartheid Week of claiming that "Zionism is racism." Speaking in Britain February 17, he assailed the "anti-Zionist version of anti-Semitism" which maintains that "the Jews alone have no right to a homeland."

He made no reference to the plight of the Palestinians, who have been dispossessed, expelled, and oppressed during the building of an apartheid-based "homeland." Taking possession of Palestine as a Jewish "homeland," without reference to its inhabitants, is of course the defining purpose of Zionism.

Responding to Kenney, Judy Rebick and Alan Sears noted that Zionism has been strongly contested over the past century by "Jewish universalism," which holds that the future of the Jewish community depends "on winning widespread freedoms that applied to all members of society." (National Post, March 1, 2009)

The Harper government now seems intent on shutting down this debate by declaring Zionism to be beyond criticism.

Stifling student dissent

University administrations have applied these policies by obstructing pro-Palestinian activities with barriers that limit free academic discussion. Increasingly arcane and restrictive regulations provide the administration with ample pretexts, utilized on a selective basis.

Last October, the University of Toronto administration denied meeting space to Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). The decision was made, in consultation with U of T President David Naylor, even before SAIA submitted an application. Administrators were confident some pretext could be found, and duly found one.

On February 24, York University administrators seized on another technicality (excessive noise during a demonstration) to fine York SAIA $1,000 and ban it for one month. Ottawa, Carleton, and Trent universities banned the poster advertising Israeli Apartheid Week: a drawing that showed an Isareli helicopter firing on a Palestinian child, evoking the slaughter of more than 400 children in Gaza under the Israeli bombardment.

Applications are frequently denied, or if approved, cancelled at the last moment, or, if permitted to take place, interrupted by squads of pro-Israeli disruptors and the unwanted intrusion of armed city police.

Such repressive moves encourage aggressive actions by right-wing groupings. Palestinian rights advocates at Toronto's three universities have noted "an alarming increase in harassment, intimidation and physical violence against [Israeli Apartheid Week] organizers and guests." When such incidents are reported, the students say, campus police take no action.

A ready solution

The Toronto students stress that lectures should not have to take place behind heavy police lines. "We do not want our events to be militarized," they say. "Instead, we believe the freedom to hold Israeli Apartheid Week events could be relatively easily guaranteed by a public statement from university administrations stating that free expression on campuses will be protected and that the University rejects the false claim that IAW events constitute 'hate speech.'"

Student activists at Carleton and Ottawa universities have called on the university administration to sponsor a full public debate on their universities' position on the proposed institutional boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Such actions could quickly dispel the atmosphere of intimidation and permit a civil and respectful discussion of the tragic conflict in Palestine. The university administrations have yet to respond.

'We won't give an inch'

The federal government has seized on the issue of Israel to promote restrictions on freedom of speech that threaten the rights of everyone in Canada.

Among the victims of this policy is the Jewish community, which is both hindered from discussing its deep internal divisions on Israeli government policy and is simultaneously set up to take the rap for government infringements on civil liberties.

The government is acting from weakness: its stand of unconditional support for the Israeli government's crimes cannot stand the light of objective scrutiny.

"Serious movements have serious enemies," commented activist Naomi Klein to Toronto's opening Israeli Apartheid Week meeting March 2. "All the attacks you are facing is a measure of the success of this movement."

Klein urged the movement to stand firm. "Anger at use of the word apartheid increases even as Israel moves more openly to apartheid measures. It is a wake-up word. It brings to life the horror."

Summing up the convictions of hundreds of Israeli Apartheid Week supporters, Klein declared, "We affirm our right to use tactics that actually work, images that evoke empathy, words that inspire a global movement. And we won't give an inch."

John Riddell is a Toronto-based activist and co-editor of Socialist Voice. 

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