Past to present: Israeli Apartheid Week

Every year, Israeli Apartheid Week provokes heated debate between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students and groups on campus. The week includes lectures, demonstrations, and films to shore up support for “boycotts, divestments, and sanctions” against Israel, according to its website. Launched at U of T in 2005, IAW is being held in 40 cities this year.

“We do this week to raise awareness of Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid and to promote the growing global movement for boycotting domestic sanctions, and to get Israel to comply with three demands,” said Students Against Israeli Apartheid organizer Golta Shahidi. “The first one is an end to occupation, and dismantling the apartheid wall; the second demand is to respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees; and the final demand is equal rights for all citizens of the state.”

The campaign has drawn criticism for using the word “apartheid.” Pro-Israeli student groups say the event is one-sided, and spreads hate and misinformation about Israel. This year, two Ottawa universities banned IAW posters that portray Israel as killing children.

While friction at other campuses has been rising, U of T’s event is the calmest since its inception. SAIA member Semra Eylul Sevi said the group is faced with a “different way of trying to suppress dissent” from admin. She cited a Freedom of Information request that revealed senior U of T administrators were involved in denying SAIA space bookings.
Two weeks ago, Carleton University threatened expulsions and sanctions against SAIA for circulating promotional IAW posters that depicted an Israeli warplane firing a missile at a Palestinian child.

Sevi said these posters were posted around the U of T campus, but many were torn down or defaced. A new batch of posters, now up, read, “Tear down this poster if you support Israeli Apartheid.”

The phrase “Israeli Apartheid” was banned by McMaster University last year, with support from the McMaster Students Union. McMaster’s photocopy centre refused to reproduce a poster with the phrase “Israeli Apartheid Week,” sending it off to the university’s human rights and equity services office instead.

On Feb. 12, reported student newspaper the Excalibur, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student groups protested simultaneously at Vari Hall, separated by a row of campus security guards. The York branch of SAIA held the rally to urge York president Mamdouh Shoukri to condemn the bombing of academic institutions by Israel. Jewish student groups like Hillel and Hasbara Fellowships organized a counter-demonstration.

SAIA, as organizers, have been suspended for 30 days and fined $1,000 for disrupting classes. The suspension bars the group from booking rooms, halls, and tables, according to SAIA member Hala Farah.

The day before the protest, SAIA had interrupted a press conference announcing that enough signatures had been obtained to impeach the York Federation of Students executive. The conference was apart of a Drop YFS campaign organized by Hillel at York and other pro-Israeli student groups. Tensions boiled over when SAIA and other supporters of YFS entered the room, breaking the fire-code capacity of 30 people, and abruptly ending the press conference. Accusations of racism flew from both sides.

IAW has also attracted controversial figures. Former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was a featured guest at IAW at U of T in 2006, and then again at Ryerson in 2008. In an essay written shortly after the World Trade Centre attacks, Churchill called some victims “little Eichmanns,” referring to Karl Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who administered concentration camps in World War II.

Palestinian professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Leila Farsakh, First Nations activist Bob Lovelace, and York University professor David McNally will speak at the Koffler Institute at 7 p.m. tonight.

Editorial: ‘Hate Week’ forces sides when it should be stimulating debate

For those of us not yet convinced, the recent Gaza invasion made clear the disproportionate nature of Israel’s response to provocation and the dismal conditions under which many Palestinians live. The sanctions, brutal violence, and targeting of civilians are inexcusable. But the crux of the issue is human suffering, not the moral characters of Israel or Hamas. Vilifying the aggressor is not an effective response to a conflict in which thousands of victims lie between two violent extremes.

Israeli Apartheid Week has taken an already divisive international issue and used it to create an antagonistic environment on campus. IAW is about furthering the views of its organizers rather than facilitating an open discussion on the topic, which is one that many students do care about. The organizers cannot be wholly blamed in this regard—there are also those who have been baited into an equally extreme response.

And campus media have to shoulder some of the blame, too. After all, it’s pretty clear that many of the tactics used—including the name “Israeli Apartheid” itself—have been chosen to attract maximum media coverage by playing to our known weakness for stories involving conflict, a good photo, and an easy phrase simplifying a complex situation.

Whatever IAW’s original purpose, the nickname that this weeklong series of events has taken among the student body is telling: that any week of the year should be known as “Hate Week” demonstrates a profound failure on the university’s part.

Inevitably, university policies will be treated as part of the conflict. However, this is just the kind of problem that policy—or policy alone—cannot fix. Treating this as a policy issue exacerbates the problem. By “failure on the university’s part,” we refer not only to university administration, but to all of us. Hate Week exemplifies how easy it is to get carried away with the conflict between students and university governance—a conflict that so often becomes a matter of eye-for-an-eye justice. Ontario campuses can become battlegrounds: offences invite counter-offences from other groups (witness the advertisement battles that take place in this newspaper and on campus lamp posts). Passersby get dragged in trying to return overdue books to the library.

It’s a strange situation given that universities aren’t states, they’re universities. We can appreciate that those who hand out fliers for hours in the bitter cold are trying to help educate students about this issue—no easy task on a notoriously apathetic campus, especially during this time of year when we have enough information to process as it is. The question is this: Israeli Apartheid Week has been around since 2005, so how much have we learned?

Hate Week proves that merely providing a free space for open discussion cannot create discussion itself. Unfortunately, the free space is what we’ve been focussing on for a while now. The failure to make effective use of public forums results in two sides (though in reality, we know there are an infinite number of sides on the issue of Israel-Palestine) yelling at one another, neither listening to what the other is saying.

The role of the university in our society is a place for informed and open discussion, free from dogma and intimidation. That some students don’t feel welcome to participate in that discussion, or simply avoid certain buildings so that they won’t be asked to take sides, is a clear signal that we as a community have deviated from that role.

The first step toward a solution is inviting other groups on campus to organize an alternative to IAW. The point would not be to initiate a third firing squad, but to avoid the tactics and rhetoric of Hate Week altogether. If these events are organized by groups with no obvious connection to Israel or Palestine, all the better. The participation of such third-party groups would hopefully emphasize the multiplicity of views available. Anything that can be done to dissolve the tension that usually accompanies IAW is a plus.

Pro-Israel for good reasons

Over the years at this university, a number of people have approached me asking how a Chinese atheist came to be the president of a pro-Israel group on campus. Certainly at face value, this curiosity is understandable. But at the same time, it is symptomatic of a sad state of affairs on this and many other campuses. Because there is nothing controversial or peculiar about one’s support for Israel: it is a liberal democratic country that affords rights to all its citizens. As liberal-minded Canadians, it follows that we should sympathize with a country agreeable to our own values, just as we do with democratic allies such as the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and India.

That most students don’t realize how self-evident a stand with Israel should be is probably due to events like Israel Apartheid Week. It is unfortunate that on this campus, the first thoughts that come to students’ minds when Israel is brought up is a week devoted to negative portrayals and slander. As another Israel Apartheid Week comes and goes, this campus’ diverse student body ought to try a thought experiment: how would you feel if an organization devoted an entire week to the vilification of your home country? Would it be productive to the discussion of serious issues, or would it simply incite racial tensions and anger? How fair would it be if profession of your patriotism was labelled as “racist?”

As a person of Chinese descent proud of his cultural and national roots, I am confident that if this university held a series of events focussing on criticisms of the Chinese state, students would balk in disgust. They would no doubt acknowledge the multiplicity of political and social issues surrounding China that need to be discussed, and would protest the lack of balance and objectivity. This analogy extends to all states, including Israel.

Some will object to my characterization of Israel Apartheid Week. They will argue that it does indeed promote discussion, and does so in an objective and balanced manner. Perhaps an account of my experiences can put such objections into perspective. In November, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, the sponsors of Israel Apartheid Week, held a public forum to discuss Israel’s security fence. At the forum, I made a public overture for dialogue, stating that students on this campus would love to have a discussion on Israel with all opinions voiced and heard. The proposal was immediately rejected. It turns out that SAIA was not interested in dialogue with ideologically differing students, because these students were “racist.” I was later accosted by some of the students present at the forum and asked if I knew the whereabouts of a Ku Klux Klan meeting, the implication being that support of Israel was tantamount to racism.

This was not an isolated incident. Two years ago, Israel Apartheid Week included a lecture by an Israeli Member of Knesset on the subject of Israeli democracy. When dissenting students, myself included, asked questions critical of the lecture’s content, we were booed by the audience. Loud chants of “shame” erupted to the point where we knew we were not welcome at the event.

Although SAIA events are open to the public, SAIA routinely bars the media from taking pictures or making video recordings. SAIA meetings, which are advertised as all-inclusive, have ideological litmus tests. I know this because I have attempted to sit in on their meetings, with the end result being outrage and contempt directed toward myself and my peers.

If the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week intend to stimulate intellectual exchange and objectivity, their actions beg to differ. They have shown, through intimidation and verbal assaults, secrecy and hostility, and that they do not care much for discourse on this campus. It is ironic that while the rights of free speech permit their events to occur, they have no problem silencing their opponents with ad hominem arguments and the discouragement of criticism from dissidents and journalists.

Joshua Xiong is the President of Zionists @ University of Toronto

Apartheid is not dead

“Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories appear so similar to the apartheid of an earlier era, a continent away, and I believe it is very important we in the United Nations use this term,” says Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the current serving president of the United Nations General Assembly. “We must not be afraid to call something for what it is…Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations.”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, initiated by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005, is a growing peaceful campaign demanding that Israel comply with international law by ending its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, grant equal rights to all of its citizens irrespective of race or religion, and allow Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland, as stipulated under UN Resolution 194.

This year, Israeli Apartheid Week, organized to further the BDS movement on campuses, is taking place concurrently in over 40 cities worldwide, including campuses in the West Bank, South Africa, and Britain. Complete with lectures, multimedia presentations, cultural performances, art showings, film screenings, and demonstrations, IAW unites the growing chorus of voices identifying Israel as an apartheid state.

Apartheid, meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, was a term used to describe the legislated racial segregation of pre-1994 South Africa. Under the regime of “grand apartheid,” and especially with the introduction of the 1950 Group Areas Act, white South Africans forced the displacement and denationalization of large numbers of indigenous black South Africans. The subsequent concentration of these black South Africans into a series of cramped, nominally autonomous “Bantustans” led to the creation of a white majority “democracy” within the remaining 87 per cent of the South African state.

This story is all too familiar to Palestinians who, during the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, saw the forced expulsion of 800,000 of their own people and the destruction of over 430 towns and villages. Today, Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—the West Bank and Gaza—confront a complex network of checkpoints, walls, roadblocks, curfews, Jewish-only roads, and other tools designed to Bantustanize and ghettoize over 3.5 million Palestinians into less than 20 per cent of their historic homeland.

The establishment of this system of grand apartheid in Israel, which mirrors the South African system, has managed to create a Jewish majority in Israel and thereby artificially construct an ethnic “democracy” by displacing the majority indigenous population. The roughly 1.2 million Palestinians who remain nominal “citizens” of Israel face legislated discrimination in land-ownership, family law, and citizenship rights, while over three million Palestinian refugees expelled from historic Palestine continue to be denied the right to return.

Some have argued that the title of apartheid belongs solely to the case of South Africa. However, this is not true as the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted in 1976, defines apartheid as a universal crime that could be committed by other states as well. Uri Davis’ book Apartheid Israel provides an in-depth analysis of the links between South African and Israeli apartheid. It is very telling that colonial states with surviving indigenous populations—like Israel, Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand—all refused to sign on to the apartheid convention insisting that the crime only applied to South Africa.

Students Against Israeli Apartheid (a working group of OPIRG-Toronto) is encouraging all students to stand against our university’s support for Israeli apartheid and racism in all its forms. To get involved today, and for a full listing of IAW events and speakers, visit or contact

Saron Ghebressellassi and Faraz Vahid Shahidi are both members of Students Against Israeli Apartheid @ UofT, and are volunteers at the Ontario Public Interest Research Group-Toronto.

Heroically Misguided

Why should I care? That’s the question I kept asking myself during Watchmen, director Zack Snyder’s 163-minute, $100-million adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. The question Watchmen fans will want to know is if Snyder and company “screwed it up,” and they haven’t (the film is surprisingly faithful to its dense, bleak source material), but having read the book and seen the movie, I’m not sure the original was worth such reverent treatment in the first place. “Somebody’s pickin’ out costumed heroes,” says Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a Travis Bickle-like avenger in an overcoat and inkblot-patterned mask. The grave solemnity of this line’s delivery points to Watchmen’s central flaw: it ignores the fundamental absurdity of the premise.

In an alternate America circa 1985, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth presidential term and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Crime and debauchery plague the streets as the costumed heroes that once kept them clean have been outlawed (Watchmen skirts between anti-Nixon leftism and the pseudo-fascism of the vigilantes, and the ideological incoherence is troubling). Rorschach is the only hero still on the prowl, but when his former colleague The Comedian is killed, he fears a conspiracy will wipe out the other ex-crimefighters, including Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who is in reality Adrian Veidt, the only superhero to reveal his identity. Looming as an intimidating presence over the superhero community and the world at large, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has become an actual atomic superman during a freak accident, with awesome powers used to end the Vietnam War.

Watchmen has been touted as a deconstruction of the superhero genre—these heroes have angst, moral qualms with vigilantism, erectile dysfunctions, etc. But again…why should I care? The film and the book present the existential crises of costumed heroes with as much gravity as The Passion of the Christ, which would be interesting, I suppose, if superheroes were real. Because heroes like these are such an intrinsically absurd notion, I find it hard to care about and relate to their problems. I know you’re thinking about The Dark Knight, but that film tried to show how a single comic book hero could exist in a very realistic (and thus relatable) universe, while the hero-infested 1985 of Watchmen is downright surreal. I was reminded of The Incredibles, a film that made similar material infinitely more relatable by treating it lightly.

No review of Watchmen is complete without discussing its ending, which has been altered from the book but still retains its central philosophical dilemma [spoilers ahoy]. Without giving too much away, it involves an apocalyptic scenario hinged upon Dr. Manhattan, which leads our heroes into an important moral issue with potential world peace hanging in the balance.

Some have viewed this ending as posing a deep philosophical quandary, but the situation itself is about as relatable as the type of outlandish pseudo-profundities unleashed by a stoned philosophy student: ‘Okay, dude, imagine this—there’s an apocalyptic scenario involving an atomic weapon who is inherently human with free will, dude.’ Well, since the idea of an atomic weapon with free will is inherently ridiculous, why should I care? Putting this aside, I’m leery about the ends-justify-the-means implications of the scenario, and resent the suggestion that it would bring peace when two world wars and a Holocaust couldn’t. (Might I suggest that in the militaristic, Nixonian universe of this film, such an event would only inspire increased nuclear paranoia, not to mention uproar over the government that created the weapon?) [End spoilers.]

Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have done an adequate job adapting a complicated book into a workable screenplay. The key scenes are here, with the biggest cut being the newsvendor/comic-within-the-comic scenes (which will reportedly surface on an extended DVD). Yet perhaps the film is too faithful: every shot has a glowing, artificial sheen similar to Snyder’s 300, suggesting that the director is so reverent to the material that he’s not only presenting the comic book panels, but polishing and laminating them (if ever there was a futuristic universe that deserved a gritty, Blade Runner-style treatment, it’s this one). The film is simply a prettier, shorter version of the comic with a more problematic ending. Why should I care?

Rating: VV

Q&A: Malin Akerman

North Toronto’s own Malin Akerman, whose memorable appearance in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was a key moviegoing moment for many a teenage boy, has her showiest and most demanding role yet in Watchmen playing Laurie Jupiter (a.k.a the Silk Spectre), the conflicted lover of Dr. Manhattan. In an interview, she revealed to The Varsity the triumphs and tribulations of acting in a much-awaited adaptation.

The Varsity: What kind of a director is Zack Snyder?

Malin Akerman: If you meet Zack Snyder, within three minutes you’re sold on whatever he’s selling you, because he’s so passionate, and he’s so smart, and he has such a vision for things. You automatically become enthralled and you know you’ve got a real reader at the helm, which is what you need, especially for something like this.

TV: There is a lot of green-screen work in this film. Did you do a lot of your own stunts?

MA: We did 95 per cent of the stunts. All the fight sequences that you saw, they would film us doing it and film our stunt doubles doing it. So basically, two months before shooting I started a boot-camp with an ex-Navy SEAL to try to gain some muscle mass and try to feel more like a strong fighter, and then a month before shooting we shipped off to Vancouver and started all the fight training. The fight training continued throughout the whole six months of the shoot, which was pretty gruesome and also pretty awesome.

TV: Did you ever feel constricted by playing a well-known character with an already well-established history?

MA: One of the challenges was, because there is this source material, you not only have the history of your character but you also have the visuals, so even seeing the body language of her and the other characters was a challenge and helpful all at once.

Often when you go into a role you have to go into all the back-stories yourself, and here it was all written for you. There wasn’t any improv involved whatsoever, and I am used to doing a lot of improv with all the other characters and roles just to make it your own, but here there has to be allegiance to the novel. So you have to figure out why exactly that person is saying a line in such a way.

TV: Because it’s a comic book movie, did you ever feel tempted to play the role campy or over-the-top?

MA: These characters are so real, so it’s much easier to play them real than it is to play up the [potentially campy] genre of the film. But for sure there are certain moments where [you think], “Alright, we’ve gotta be sure not to make this silly because we’re standing here in our costumes.” So those were the moments where I was like, “Alright Zack, you’ve gotta gauge this scene and make sure that it doesn’t go onto the campy side of things.”

Feeling the music

“It’s definitely a show that we’re going to remember,” says Fox Jaws guitarist and singer Daniel Allen. The band is set to showcase their diverse and intricate tunes tonight at Clinton’s Tavern, at a concert accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired.

The concert, presented by Ryerson University’s Center of Learning Technology and the Science of Music Auditory Research and Technology Lab, will feature vibrating emoti-chairs, closed-captioning, and interpreters, to expand and transpose the music for those who may not otherwise be able to fully experience a live show. The emoti-chair plays with the idea of vibrations, breaking apart the vibrations of the different instruments and vocals to make physical the auditory experience, imitating the subtleties and intricacies of a live performance.

The idea arose from Ryerson’s Alternative Sensory Information Displays project, a study devoted to finding alternative methods for reinterpreting and transposing sensory information—especially in the fields of music, background or environmental sounds, and vocal tones and intonations. Though the chair resembles something out of a classic monster movie—an imposing piece of equipment, with a high and angular support system, and tubes that wrap around the seated person—its purpose is to convey the emotional and visceral core of a musical experience.

“We’re kind of a mixed lot as far as the music goes,” continues Daniel. “I mean, we have your fast upbeat songs which are sort of anxious, and we’ve also got slow, soundscape songs. You get a bit of everything with us—but maybe it’ll be too much for people.”

Fox Jaws’ latest album, Goodbye Doris, is set at a frantic pace, with interlocking, heartfelt vocals, making Fox Jaws a prime example of musicians who tap into the visceral emotive quality that researchers at Ryerson want to evoke. And though there have been a few test runs, this concert will be the first time that the emoti-chairs are employed at a live musical venue, apart from a controlled scientific environment.

“It’s going to be a big surprise for everyone involved,” says Allen. “There could be backlash, who knows. But it’s definitely going to be interesting, and I think our music will be great for the experiment. We play around with different styles, so they’ll really get to have a buffet of sounds during our set.”

Hearing impaired or not, all are welcome to test the new equipment. “We’re going to go into it like any other show,” says Allen. “Ultimately, you just want to play the best you can, for everyone—those who can hear, and for those who can’t.”

Fox Jaws, Treestar, The Dufraines, Hollywood Swank, and more play the Concert for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on Thursday, March 5 at Clinton’s Tavern (693 Bloor Street West). Doors are at 8 p.m., and tickets are $5 at the door.

Meet the underdogs

Perry Darkwa – Candidate for VP internal

The Varsity: Why should students vote for you?

Perry Darkwa: I’m independent. I think that I offer a different perspective. My platform is that we should be focusing on the fundamentals and not hemorrhaging funds for wasteful endeavours.

TV: What are your other priorities?

PD: Parking is a hassle. Overhaul it, give parking reimbursements, or find other ways for students to park at U of T.

I want to renegotiate our health and dental coverage, perhaps expand it. If not, then at least reduce the fees. I also want to look at the Metropass and also lower the cost for that as well.

TV: What experience do you bring to the table?

PD: I don’t have experience in student government, but I think that’s a strength. I talked to a lot of people—one of the major concerns is that a lot of students don’t feel like they’re being heard. I can offer a perspective that starts from the ground up, as opposed to looking downwards from the top.

TV: You’re running as an independent, up against two slates. Do you feel left out?

PD: I definitely feel left out. I’m there to offer a third voice. You have two slates, Access and Change. Most of Access are incumbents. They’re more of the same. I know a lot of Change have been involved with student government and have a lot of experience. I’m removed from the process and I see things very differently.

TV: Anything else you’d like to add?

PD: I’m a third-year economics and math student. I’m from Trinity. Make sure to vote for me.

Brittany Silvestri – Candidate for VP equity

The Varsity: Why should students vote for you?

Brittany Silvestri: Equity is my passion. It’s not only about accessibility on campus, but into certain groups. For example, someone can come to me with an equity issue and get access to UTSU, which hasn’t been happening recently.

TV: What are your priorities?

BS: My priorities are specifically working with youth and university students with disabilities, to make sure that they have access to not only clubs but also organizations and classes. I work with autistic children through a program called Reach for the Rainbow—we integrate them into sports programs. We can learn so much from people that are not only cognitively but also physically disabled.

TV: What experience do you bring to the table?

I’m an active member of LGBTOUT and I want to expand the positive space campaign. If you notice the stickers, they’re just on the corner of office doors and right now they don’t mean very much.

I already work on the issues I would undertake as VP equity. In Mississauga, I work with elementary schools to make sure their student groups are run equitably.

I think our current VP Equity has done an amazing job with racialized and anti-discrimination campaigns. I definitely want to take what she’s gained from the Taskforce Against Racism and apply all the policy that’s been created. [Note: The taskforce is having its first U of T meeting today at the Bahen Centre, at 5 p.m.]

TV: You’re running as an independent, up against two slates. Do you feel left out?

BS: Not in the debate forum, but I felt left out when The Varsity ran [coverage on] the two slates and totally left me out. The only reason why I did run independently is because my beliefs don’t coincide with either idea. I’m sitting in the middle.

It’s great to say, “we demand access.” A single group demanding access from the administration is one thing, but I believe that students should demand access from that group, which is predominantly people being re-elected. We haven’t, as a student body, had access to UTSU all year.

The idea of change is a great idea and it works for almost every other position. But we don’t need to change in equity. We need accessibility and inclusiveness, but definitely not change—we’re on the right road already. To take everything that’s been learned and worked for already and throw that aside, that isn’t the right answer either.

TV: Anything else you’d like to add?

BS: Vote for me!