Apartheid Week: 'An ad campaign, not a movement'

"In 10 years, people are going to think about Israel and apartheid as somehow connected," says Toronto Jewish leader.

March 5, 2010 06:00
2 minute read.
A poster for Israeli Apartheid Week.

israel apartheid week 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)


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Israeli Apartheid Week is getting some attention.

In Canada, where it began, it has been criticized by major media outlets and Ontario’s parliament. In the Jewish and Israeli press, the concern has been vociferous and constant.

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For Israel, IAW represents an extremism that can’t be negotiated with.

Some campaigns call for “ending occupation” or “making peace,” one Israeli official recently told The Jerusalem Post. But, according to the movement’s own Web site, IAW goes much further, labeling Israel’s very “nature” as “apartheid,” and calling for boycotts, divestments and sanctions to be directed at the Jewish state until it fulfills a long list of political demands, including withdrawal from “all Arab lands,” a term that explicitly includes the Golan Heights.

It also demands full “right of return to their homes and properties” for millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, withdrawal from all east Jerusalem, apparently including the Kotel, “full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel” and dismantling of the security barrier (“the Wall”) that divides Israeli population centers from large parts of the West Bank.

The Web site even brags that IAW is “disseminating information about Zionism” and its evils.

It’s a long list, some of it having little to do with Palestinians, said the Israeli diplomatic official.

Yet, for all the concern among Jews and Israelis, everyone who has actually met IAW activists and attended their programs quickly discovers that the movement is tiny, with events attended by small handfuls of regulars.

At a well-publicized event Monday at Toronto’s Ryerson University, attendee Mercel Nekhis counted under 100 participants.

“There were only about 20 students there, and I’d say maybe 12 were organizers. The rest were community members, people over 40,” said Nekhis, a Jewish student at Toronto’s York University, who attended together with some friends “to monitor that nothing anti-Semitic is said there.”

Most of the crowd, he added, was made up of people with Middle Eastern origins.

So, even in Toronto, the movement’s home base and starting point six years ago, attendance was a paltry grouping of “the usual people.” What, then, is the cause of so much trepidation among pro-Israel student groups and Jewish leaders?

“The concern isn’t with the numbers,” says Howard English, vice president of strategic communications at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the city’s Jewish umbrella group. “There’s this feeling that, in 10 years, people are going to think about Israel and apartheid as somehow connected, just because they’ve heard the pairing of those words together so many times. That’s the real danger.”

The IAW activists “don’t seem so organized this year,” commented Nekhis. At his own university, “students are walking by the exhibits of Students Against Israeli Apartheid, and they say, ‘we get it. Leave us alone already.’”

Of a student body numbering over 50,000, “I’d say less than 1% would agree with the [anti-Israel group]. They don’t seem to be very popular,” he said.

Without the numbers, IAW campaigners hope simply to repeat their charges against Israel enough that they succeed in rebranding it in the public consciousness.

“This is more of a brand campaign than a political movement,” said Nekhis.

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