The return of Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) makes it necessary to review some of the better and less well-known features of this annual, global event. By doing so, it will become possible better to understand the nature and scope of the problem and to improve our focus on potential responses.
The first and most important fact regarding IAW is its clearly stated goal of destroying Israel. This is sometimes glossed over by individual events and specific speakers. It may also be lost in the emotionalism that surrounds the agit-prop rhetoric and guerilla theatrics. But the “Basis of Unity for IAW International Coordination” makes the goals and methods of IAW and its local affiliates clear:
We are against the racist ideology of Zionism, which is the impetus for Israeli colonialism, because it inherently discriminates against those who are not Jewish. We are against all forms of discrimination, and believe that there can never be justice without the restoration of full rights for everyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Our demands are based upon the Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, issued on 9 July 2005 by over 170 Palestinian organizations, which states that:
Boycott, divestment and sanctions should be imposed and maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands, dismantling the Wall and freeing all Palestinian and Arab political prisoners;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN General Assembly resolution 194.
To be part of the Israeli Apartheid Week International Network, organizations should commit to:
a) the basis of unity above
b) coordination with the international network
c) building, as part of Israeli Apartheid Week activities, local BDS awareness and campaigns.
As will be noted below, the nature of these goals raise questions regarding responses from pro-Israel and pro-peace supporters.
Another obvious but unappreciated feature is that IAW is a highly professional, coordinated international effort with unknown sources of funding. It is not a series of loosely affiliated grassroots initiatives that happens to be taking place simultaneously in over 100 cities around the world. It is explicitly based on the “Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel” of 2005, which in turn was based on the “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel” of 2004. But the roots of these efforts have been traced by IAW organizers back to at least 2000, who also make reference to two additional sources of legitimacy, international efforts that opposed apartheid in South Africa and, more ominously, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 of 1975 that declared “Zionism is Racism.”
Thus, in ideological and practical terms the IAW movement justifies itself in two ways. Firstly, that it promotes the will of Palestinian organizations that supported the first call. These are primarily professional, trade and labor organizations controlled by the Fatah movement and other members in the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as non-governmental organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories that receive American and European funding. Secondly, IAW sees itself as part of the anti-apartheid tradition endorsed by the international community. This is of course part of the movement’s name and a key element in its marketing. But the lineage back to Resolution 3379 is another indication of the IAW’s true origins and goals.
IAW is also an explicit structural as well as ideological component of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The ideological and practical links between IAW and the BDS movement are seen in the regular use of the same speakers at events. Professional activists such as Omar Barghouti, and academics such as Ali Abunimah, Judith Butler, and Saree Makdisi are among the notable individuals who have appeared at IAW and BDS events recently. The rhetoric of IAW differs slightly from that of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which calls for the “right of return” and BDS activities but which also emphasizes Palestinian and broader Arabic culture as well as political lobbying in the United Kingdom.
Espousing the dissolution of Israel and the “right of return” in favor of single state explicitly denies Jews the right to political sovereignty. Since only Jews are denied this right, IAW and BDS are explicitly antisemitic. The lack of any clear political proposals on the part of IAW, in the form of the desired unitary state, such as “secular” and “democratic,” or any articulation of its political and legal systems, not least of all protections of minorities, is another indication of the IAW’s nature and goals. IAW is fundamentally antinomian, that is, it is more opposed to the existence of Israel than it is in favor of concrete and workable, much less fair, solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This, along with the explicit situation of BDS as part of anti-colonial, indigenous rights, and anti-globalization movements, speaks to BDS and IAW as heirs to the Soviet tradition of antisemitism in the guise of anti-Zionism, which reached a peak with Resolution 3379, and its current position firmly within the global left.
In the past, the relationship between IAW and actual BDS efforts has been obscured by its guerrilla theater tactics. More recently, however, divestment proposals put forward in student governments at American universities appear more carefully timed to coincide with IAW. The failure in March 2013 of one proposal at Stanford University has now been matched by a success at the University of California at San Diego. Such resolutions have had no practical effect on university investment policies but will continue to influence the general university environment, particularly among students.
How IAW actually works remains unclear, since the international and local organizers do not reveal their names in most publicly accessible sources. Organizing local events is conducted in a cell-like manner, and parties interested in participating or contributing must approach local organizers through email or Facebook. This closed structure is a key operating procedure that creates an air of elitism and secrecy to insiders and consistently creates surprises for outsiders. Many of the same individuals appear repeatedly as grassroots activists but at different academic institutions, for example across undergraduate and graduate careers, suggesting a guiding hand as well as sources of support.
IAW’s sources of funding are unknown. It does not fundraise on its international or local websites nor does it tout grants it has received. A brief search of reports filed by non-profits with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not show IAW registered as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization under that name or any close approximation. Organizations may of course be registered as non-profits under whatever name they choose.
The organizational links to the BDS movement, which as noted include sharing speakers, may extend to funding. The funding of the BDS movement is only slightly better understood. For example, the “U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation” is supported by a 501(c)(3) organization called “Education for Just Peace in the Middle East,” whose president is Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. But while these organizations are required to file reports with the IRS outlining their activities and expenditures, they are not required to list their donors.
Given the uncompromising nature of IAW’s beliefs and its party-like structure, its range of negative tactics and strident rhetoric, it must be asked what sort of responses the pro-Israel and pro-peace community should muster. Responding to IAW is therefore a subset to what has become a broader debate regarding pro-Israel and pro-peace tactics on American campuses. To what extent should IAW simply be ignored, or responded to by positive programming such as Israel “buycotts”? Is there a place for negative counterprogramming, regarding for example the abuse of women and gays in Palestinian society or racism generally in the Muslim world?
There are no clear guidelines except the suggestion that every campus is different, in terms of its social and political structures, and these should help shape responses. A corollary observation is that any and all responses will be automatically inverted as negatives or pointed to as a deliberate distraction; for example, even a positive discussion of the status of gays in Israeli society will elicit the accusation of “pinkwashing.” Such chilling effects are unquantifiable but run deep. Little need be said regarding IAW’s abuse of human rights rhetoric and explicit denial of any rights to Israelis, or its demands for free speech, and denial of the same to others. Physical violence from pro-Palestinian protestors is not uncommon and must be counted as another chilling effect.
With respect to IAW specifically, one must ask whether any form of direct engagement, in the form of debate or discussion, is worthwhile. With their propensity for dirty tricks, such as the recent posting of mock eviction notices on the doors of Jewish students at Harvard, and their regular use of mock apartheid walls and checkpoints on college campuses, it is clear that they are true believers with unchangeable minds. To this extent, does engagement in debates or discussions on the part of pro-Israel and pro-peace supporters play into IAW’s hands by legitimizing their viewpoints, rhetoric and tactics?
The explicit entrapment of pro-Israel and pro-peace supporters, in particular Jewish and Jewish Studies faculty members, by BDS supporters generally is an obvious issue but one that is rarely discussed. Faculty members are regularly drawn into to stacked debates or worse, kangaroo courts. If they refuse to participate,this gives anti-Israel organizers the fig leaf of having sought balance and the license to put their own extremism on full display. There is, in a sense, no winning, except through continually exposing IAW’s fundamental bigotry, mendacity, and unfair tactics.
Having said this, it is also necessary correctly to assess IAW’s impact, at least on broader American society. Recent polls have shown, for example, that American sympathies with Israel are matching their all-time high, and that sympathy for Palestinians remains extremely low. Though IAW takes place publicly and not just on campuses, it is there that the impact is most visible. Other sectors that should be kept in view, however, are labor unions and Protestant churches, where BDS efforts have been focused for many years, as well as in the Democratic Party both at the national and local levels, where support for Israel has been dropping. Other impacts are occasionally seen in the entertainment industry, where, for example, calls are regularly issued to petition or boycott artists who perform in Israel.
At present, the overall failure of IAW and the BDS movement to change American public opinion and behavior as a whole is striking. Ensuring that failure continues and expands is no small task, but this is vital if the cause of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is to advance.
Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is currently a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. This piece was written for SPME.