[Marxism] Israeli Apartheid Week Beats Back Attacks on Free Speech

Jim Ferguson jim.ferguson1917 at gmail.com
Wed Mar 18 01:45:58 MDT 2009


March 17, 2009
Israeli Apartheid Week Beats Back Attacks on Free Speech

By John Riddell.

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 return
of Palestinian refugees.

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

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

Speaking in the House of Commons March 31, 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.”

(Section 319 of the Criminal Code2 states that, subject to certain
safeguards, anyone who “wilfully promotes hatred against any
identifiable group” is guilty of an indictable or summary offense. For
a discussion of how this law has been applied, see “Countering

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)

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”

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 Hillel at York President Daniel Ferman as saying demonstrators had
shouted “dirty Jew” and “f—ing Jew.” Strangely, none of the reporters
present heard that.

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.’ ” (For a fuller account of
the escalating charges of anti-semitism, see The Israeli Advocacy Push
to Reclaim York University4,” by Dan Freeman-Maloy.)

On February 14, advertisements5 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 Campus6,” 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.” (CBC News, February 17)

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)

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. (For a detailed account of
U. of T.’s campaign, see Exposed: University of Toronto Suppresses
Pro-Palestinian Activism7 by Liisa Schofield.).

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

Such repressive moves encourage aggressive actions by right-wing
groupings. A statement by Palestinian rights advocates8 at Toronto’s
three universities notes “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 be 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,” activist Naomi Klein said9
at 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 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 co-editor of Socialist Voice. This article was first
published in rabble.ca10.

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