New York Affairs: Invoking Apartheid with a vengeance

On campus and off, anti-Israel activists have been busy hosting events to promote the Palestinian cause.

anti gaza op protest london 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
anti gaza op protest london 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Last year's YouTube trailer advertising the fourth annual Israeli Apartheid Week featured footage of students from the University of Toronto speaking earnestly from a podium about the injustices visited on the Palestinian people, dubbed over with an amateurish drum-circle soundtrack taken, apparently, from a live stage performance. This year, the backers of the event - which will take place starting Sunday in cities from Abu Dis to Waterloo, in Canada - have a much slicker pitch: a minute-long polemic that opens with a cartoon scene of a teddy-clutching little boy, wearing a black-and-white keffiyeh, being strafed by a swarm of helicopters, as a wave of red washes across the ground. The music swells into a catchy Arabic rap, as paper cutout figures - presumably Gazans - pop up, crowded behind walls crowned with concertina wire; the words "We Demand" flash against a gray background that flares to orange below a litany of grievances, from the occupation of Arab lands and the construction of the security barrier to the right of return for Palestinian refugees, before announcing the group's objective: "To grow the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement." It's reminiscent of the animated anti-Bush video the rapper Eminem made for his song, "Mosh," before the 2004 US presidential election - an angry, fist-pumping call to action that, at the time, found fans everywhere, from college campuses to editors' offices at the venerable The New Yorker magazine. And it's a sign that the event, which has nearly doubled its worldwide presence this year from 25 cities to 46, will be more focused, more organized and very likely more successful at attracting participants to dozens of other events featuring speakers, film screenings and musical performances. Operation Cast Lead, which sparked worldwide protests, galvanized the movement; organizers explicitly referred to it in the video, insisting that "these latest massacres confirm the reality of Israeli apartheid." But timing is everything, and the war came just as the inauguration of Barack Obama left experienced activists looking for a new rallying cause to replace their long-standing focus on opposing the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, giving a new energy to existing pro-Palestinian organizations. "They have a lot of time on their hands, and now that the euphoria has faded from the election of a new president, they're looking for other things to do," said David Harris, director of the Washington-based Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group that works with Hillel and other organizations to sponsor pro-Israel programs on North American campuses. "There is a sense of empowerment that is a piece of this, and broad antiwar voices are part of the mix." The uptick in organized activities, and media attention, has been sharp in the six weeks since the war ended in an uneasy cease-fire. Before the offensive began, in December, there was no popular rally to a call to boycott Israel issued from the podium of the United Nations by the president of the General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann. BUT LAST week, students at New York University staged a two-day sit-in at a campus student center demanding that the school create scholarships for Palestinian students and send surplus supplies to Gaza - oh, and lower tuition costs and let students sit on university governance bodies, too. The week before that, protesters at York University in Toronto, under the banner of "Students Against Israeli Apartheid," stormed the campus Hillel office, where Jewish students took refuge after a press conference on student government, shouting anti-Semitic epithets like, "Die, Jew; get the hell off campus," along with the cry, "Zionism is racism." And a student group at Hampshire College, a small liberal-arts institution in Massachusetts - famous for being the first American college to institute a divestment policy against the South African apartheid regime in the late 1970s - took credit for pushing the school to withdraw from an investment fund that included six American companies which do business with the IDF. (School officials say the decision was unrelated to Israel, though they acknowledge that the students' petition against "corporations that directly profit from the occupation" prompted the investment review.) OFF-CAMPUS ACTIVISTS have been busy, too, with one group - called Jews Against the Occupation - hanging a sheet emblazoned with the bright-red words "Free Palestine" over the entrance to the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The banner drop was followed by a 24-hour protest outside the Jewish Agency headquarters on Third Avenue in Manhattan. Even the politically-minded Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn, was rumored to be considering a ban on products imported from Israel - like persimmons - in line with its previous boycotts of South African goods during the apartheid years, and of Nestle products over that company's campaign to encourage mothers in developing countries to buy its infant formula rather than breast-feed. Over the next week, Palestinian students at the London School of Economics and the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, known as SOAS, will host academics, filmmakers and activists - including some veterans of the South African anti-apartheid movement - to speak during a packed schedule of programs. In New York, where organizers are soliciting tax-deductible donations on the Web - a hat tip to the Obama campaign's success at grassroots fund-raising - Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, a professor at NYU, will join a panel on the university's relationship with Tel Aviv University, titled "A Partnership in Occupation." IN PAST years, groups like Harris's haven't counterprogrammed during the weeklong protests, preferring instead to keep on with their existing efforts to bring Israeli speakers to US campuses and screen films like this year's Oscar nominee, Waltz with Bashir. This year, faced with a catchy video - "I was impressed with the production values!" exclaimed Harris - and the proven organizing power of social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, they are bracing for a spring season filled with pro-Palestinian protests through May, when Israeli celebrations of Yom Ha'atzmaut [Independence Day] are pitched against Palestinian supporters' commemorations of the "Nakba" [catastrophe]. "Where we are right now is not a normal year," Harris told The Jerusalem Post. "In the past, we've thought it's something we could safely ignore... This year we're worried it will bring [them] new support."