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.