Analysis: Who’s running scared?

The Jewish world is divided on how to respond to Israeli Apartheid Week.

March 1, 2010 03:30
2 minute read.
Poster for Israeli Apartheid Week

apartheid week poster 311 carlos latuff. (photo credit: Carlos Latuff)


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The Jewish world is divided on how to respond to Israeli Apartheid Week, the annual two-week anti-Israel campaign on university campuses worldwide that calls for the end of Zionism and urges the return of Palestinian refugees into Israel.

“This [campaign] should not be underestimated,” said a veteran American Jewish leader. “It’s part of a world-wide strategy to delegitimize Israel and the Jewish people, to enhance the popularity of a world view in which there are certain rights that Jews just don’t have.”

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The leader called the campaign “insidious,” remarking that “It amounts to the claim that these activists, rather than the Jews themselves, define whether the Jews are a people, whether they deserve self-determination.”

But is the campaign successful?

According to some who have stood on the front lines of anti-Israel activism on college campuses, Israeli Apartheid Week is actually a force strengthening Jewish organizations and activism as Jewish groups awaken to the problem of the campaign.

“It’s a mistake to get so worked up about Israeli Apartheid Week and make [the anti-Israel activists] into such a big threat. They exist for us to do that,” says Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman who spent 11 years in North America helping to bring Israeli programs to university campuses.

“There was always some kind of ‘apartheid week.’ This isn’t new. The difference is that now these guys are running scared of us.”

Running scared?

“Fifteen years ago, everyone talked about the crisis that college kids don’t go to Israel,” Jankelowitz said. “Now they do go to Israel because we have [Taglit]-Birthright,” the joint American-Israeli program that has brought a quarter million Jewish college students from around the world on free trips to Israel over the past ten years.

Unlike a generation ago, Israeli studies programs are opening at universities across North America.

Israeli Apartheid Week is at its heart a battle over Jewish identity, Jankelowitz insists, echoing what seems to be the majority view within the Jewish organized world. In his view, the rapidly expanding counter-campaign is profoundly strengthening the Jewish identities of college-age Jews across North America.

Unlike two decades ago, “we are now seeing Jewish students starting to respond in a serious way, organizing,” Jankelowitz said, pointing to a Canadian Jewish student initiative at the Web site

But others disagree.

“IAW is a zeitgeist that’s been building for 20 years, and we’ve only just started to notice that it’s doing damage,” says a former Oxford University undergraduate who now lives in Israel.

While the campaign is conducted by “a small minority on campus,” it creates “a nasty atmosphere where it’s unpleasant to be Jewish,” he said, an experience he believes is not limited to the UK university campus, but is true of North American campuses as well.

“Think about it. This happens over the course of a whole week. You can decide not to buy [the left-wing British daily] The Guardian, but you can’t avoid going to university. And if you’re a 19-year-old kid, you’re not immune to this kind of talk like Israelis are,” he added.

“It’s not about Palestinian rights, it’s about taking away Jewish rights,” said the oleh, calling the event “outrageous anti-Semitism sanctioned by the universities.”

“Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he continued, “thought that anti-Zionism was bigotry, and he was a man who knew something about bigotry.”

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