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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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IAW is becoming more and more marginal

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Howard English

This week, “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW) takes place on campuses in Canada and elsewhere. As happens every year, a small group of marginal activists hold events designed to slander Israel as a racist and fundamentally illegitimate state.

For students and faculty who support Israel – including both Jews and non-Jews – the vile distortions of IAW are offensive, frustrating and even angering. At a time when regimes across the Middle East persecute minorities and even slaughter civilian protestors, IAW singles out and attacks the sole democracy in the region. Perhaps worse, IAW advocates a rejectionist, aggressive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Israeli leaders propose peace agreements, IAW activists call for a boycott of Israeli academics, athletes, and small businesses. While Israeli leaders call for coexistence and negotiations with Palestinian moderates, IAW activists embolden Palestinian extremists by redefining terrorism as “resistance.” And while Israel’s supporters push for a two-state solution to secure a future for both sides, many IAW activists call for a one-state “solution” – knowing full well this would mean the end of Israel. For IAW, it’s not about peace. It’s about the Jewish state’s very existence.

In fact, the longtime academic mentor of IAW, extremist professor Norman Finkelstein, made this very point in a revealing interview at Imperial College London on Feb. 9. Clearly exasperated with the Boycott Israel campaign, Finkelstein blasted it as a “cult” that has achieved fewer victories than he can count on his 10 fingers. He charged that the movement “will never reach a broad public until and unless they’re explicit on their goal. And their goal has to include recognition of Israel, or it’s a non-starter. It won’t reach the public. Because the moment you go out there, Israel will start to say: ‘What about us? They won’t recognize our rights.’ And that is correct… There’s a large segment of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel.”

Finkelstein’s analysis lies at the heart of why the IAW crowd has failed to resonate with a broad campus constituency. In refusing to endorse the two-state solution, the movement’s rhetoric and goals are patently self-defeating. And its failure can be measured not in its fiery words, but in its lack of results.

University administrations have overwhelmingly condemned the boycott campaign and are strengthening ties with Israeli institutions. IAW events typically garner no more than a handful of already committed anti-Israel activists. And mainstream newspapers outside of our community give IAW very little coverage – and even that has declined dramatically. A recent study by the government of Israel found that coverage of IAW dropped last year by 40 per cent over the previous two years, noting that “in general media terms, IAW is a non-event.”

Despite the well-founded anxiety IAW causes our community, Finkelstein’s frustrations are very instructive. The boycott campaign, along with IAW, while perhaps providing a satisfying emotional outlet for anti-Israel activists, has miserably failed to resonate with average students and faculty.

Our community faces serious challenges on campus, not the least of which is the influence of those postmodern professors who promote a distorted perspective on the Middle East. The cumulative impact of such anti-Israel views, presented as respectable scholarship, is far more worrisome than the shrill and sparsely attended events of IAW. This issue, along with a number of other key long-term concerns, cannot be taken for granted.

Under the chairmanship of David Koschitzky, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is working with local partners across the country to provide students with practical tools, expertise, and one-on-one issue consultation. We are supporting local Hillels, the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students, and other pro-Israel groups on campus to counter this challenge in a co-ordinated, sustained, and strategic manner. Empowering students is at the core of this approach, for it is students who are at the forefront of the battle of ideas.

There’s no question that IAW makes for one nauseating week of slogans, slander and sloppy history. But we must not take our eye off the real ball – the deep-seated challenges students are facing, that require our community to be at the top of our game 52 weeks a year.

Howard English is Senior Vice President, Greater Toronto Area and University Affairs, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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