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Friday, August 1, 2014

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IAW is really a non-event for students

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David Koschitzky

As we approach Israeli Apartheid Week (or IAW) in early March, we can expect the usual gathering of fringe activists to host seminars (most of which are sparsely attended) slandering the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. Their disgusting and false rhetoric will rightfully upset Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel.

To what extent does their inflammatory message resonate with average students? Very little it seems. Last year, an analysis by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “In general media terms, IAW is a non-event. Israel Apartheid Week has not been successful in attracting mainstream media coverage.” The report further noted that “Israeli/Jewish media outlets are now responsible for the bulk of media coverage of IAW.”

This matches our own monitoring of IAW in recent years across Canada. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) always considers our strategic advocacy efforts through the lens of our target audience. As a starting point, this means understanding that most students and faculty members devote very little (if any) consideration to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To the bystander, the subject seems heated, ancient, and – most importantly – complicated. As such, average students are not interested in the aggressive, black-and-white narrative offered by IAW.

IAW organizers want to provoke Jewish students into a week-long shouting match on campus. We need to recognize that in organizing terms, this kind of on-campus conflict serves only to mobilize the anti-Israel base; it alienates the vast majority of students from both sides. By refusing to provide anti-Israel groups with the kind of direct conflict they seek, we are depriving them of the leverage to mobilize their own activists and push their agenda beyond a small fringe on campus.

 This is not to say that we should allow the anti-Israel rhetoric of IAW to go unanswered. Especially given that – on occasion – anti-Israel activists have infringed the free speech and academic rights of Jewish and pro-Israel students. In this regard, we see three critical campus challenges that warrant our particular attention.

The first involves the primary issue of the well-being of students. Although rare, episodes of harassment and intimidation of Jewish and pro-Israel students are unacceptable and cannot go unchallenged. Despite evidence that this has diminished in recent years, we must remain responsibly vigilant on this point.

The second is the phenomenon of student governments being misused as a platform for symbolic, anti-Israel resolutions. We are not alone in this concern. Students of all backgrounds pay mandatory union fees with the expectation that their student government will address student issues, rather than irrelevant and marginal political agendas.

 Third, we must continue to counter ‘abuse of the podium’. On some campuses, particular faculty members involved with anti-Israel campaigns have brought their politics into the classroom – and in a manner of highly dubious academic value. Although this is worrisome, it is important to note that it goes against the grain; Canadian universities are substantially expanding ties with Israel. Through formal partnerships with Israeli institutions, influential Canadian faculties (law, medicine, and science to name just a few) are publicly rejecting calls to isolate Israel.

Through Hillel and grassroots activists, we are confronting the above challenges by making Israel relevant to non-Jewish students, faculty, and administrations – in ways that have proven to resonate. Our campus partners host engaging events and programming throughout the school year, because anti-Israel activism must be countered beyond a single week in March. The centre works with academics to foster university exchanges and collaborative projects, forging concrete relationships between the Jewish state and the next generation of Canadian business and academic leaders. This positive approach works to develop meaningful, long-term connections that pay dividends.

Israel’s campus detractors naturally arouse our outrage at this time of year, for their message is outrageous. They must also inspire our ongoing, strategic efforts to counter the above three challenges. Given that these trends ultimately threaten the academic rights of all students, they warrant our continued focus, resources, and commitment to build winning relationships. 

David Koschitzky is chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada.

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