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Pro-Israel groups set to counter campus apartheid claims

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An “apartheid” wall erected during the last week of February at UCLA features information critical of, if not hostile, to Israel. StandWithUs

At universities across the globe, the annual springtime ritual known as Israel Apartheid Week is kicking off, and Jewish students and pro-Israel groups have been readying themselves to respond in force.

Unlike past years, when intense pro-Palestinian activity in the wake of Israel’s offensives in Gaza and Lebanon caught many Jewish students off guard, this year the pro-Israel community is ready with initiatives of its own.

The largest effort, Israel Peace Week, is helping to coordinate responses at 28 campuses and counting. StandWithUs, the Los-Angeles based pro-Israel group, is promoting a U.S. speaking tour by Israeli soldiers to counter claims that the Israel Defense Forces engaged in widespread misconduct during 2009 offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The David Project, the Anti-Defamation League, and CAMERA all have made material available online to counter the apartheid charge and help students disseminate pro-Israel literature.

Hasbara Fellowships, a campus Israel group affiliated with the outreach group Aish Hatorah, is promoting a film about anti-Semitism on campus through the Website Campus Intifada. And in Canada, where Israel Apartheid Week activity is often far more intense than in the United States, a pro-Israel initiative called Size Doesn’t Matter enjoyed a brief spell of notoriety when it released a sexually suggestive video that spoofed Israel’s smallness.

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In advance of Israel Apartheid Week, the pro-Israel public relations house BlueStarPR released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — anti-Israel fixation syndrome.

Continuing the below-the-belt theme, the pro-Israel PR house BlueStar released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — Anti-Israel Fixation Syndrome.

“On the pro-Israel side, I think there’s much more of a focus on this week than I’ve ever seen before,” said Eliot Mathias, the director of Hasbara Fellowships. “So many different organizations and groups. There is more of an awareness of what’s happening.”

Now in its sixth year, Israel Apartheid Week is actually two weeks, running March 1 to 14. Mainly confined to university campuses, the internationally coordinated series of events aims to reinforce the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa and strengthen the activist tools that helped bring that regime to its knees.

Events often employ an element of political street theater — obstructing campus byways, for instance, with mock Israeli checkpoints or an “apartheid wall” — in addition to more conventional lectures and film screenings. Israel Apartheid Week is closely aligned with the so-called BDS movement — an acronym for boycott, divestment, and sanctions — and calls for an end to Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

Given the harsh rhetoric and strident anti-Israel policies encouraged by the events, Israel Apartheid Week has united a broad spectrum of Jewish groups that while often agreeing on few other Middle East questions, have all condemned the Israel-South Africa analogy as illegitimate and anti-peace.

Joining StandWithUs, the David Project, and Hasbara Fellowships in their condemnation of Israel Apartheid Week are J Street and its campus arm, J Street U, and the liberal Zionist group Ameinu.

J Street has taken a slightly different tack from the other groups, largely eschewing on-campus fliers in favor of a campaign it calls Invest Don’t Divest, which aims to promote fund-raising for cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians that “help set the context for a sustainable peace.” A spokesperson for J Street told JTA the group did not want its “nuanced pragmatic” approach to get lost in the “shouting match” that some groups engage in during Israel Apartheid Week.

And inevitably, the shouting does happen. Israel Apartheid Week reliably brings at least a few speakers each year who shock the campus Jewish community by tiptoeing ever so close to the line separating ant-Zionism from outright anti-Semitism — and arguably marching right over it.

Even so, the wider significance of Israel Apartheid Week is a matter of some dispute in the pro-Israel community. At many, if not most, American schools, little or nothing is done for Israel Apartheid Week, whose official Website lists events in 45 locations, only about a quarter of them in the United States. Anti-Israel activists at some schools — like the much-discussed University of California, Irvine — run apartheid activities other weeks that are not listed on the official site.

“In the U.S., I’m aware of some isolated pockets of activity, but in five years that IAW has been running, we haven’t seen it catch on in the mainstream campus community,” said Stephen Kuperberg, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group comprising 30 groups.

Still, virtually everyone in the pro-Israel campus community agrees that the frequency and intensity of apartheid/BDS activity is growing. And some even link it to a spike in anti-Semitic activity on campuses. At the University of California, Davis last week, a Jewish student found a swastika carved into her dorm door.

“I think it’s absolutely a big deal,” said Lawrence Muscant, the acting executive director of the David Project. “The fallacious lie of Israeli apartheid is seeping into the maintream. It’s extremely disturbing.”

JTA

 
 

Be prepared

Educators help freshmen advocate for Israel

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Hasbara has brought more than 1,800 students to its biannual training workshops in Israel and is on more than 250 campuses throughout the United States and Canada. Hasbara also provides a variety of options to help extend the knowledge about Israel on campus, through various training classes, film screenings, and speakers for student organizations.

Area teens heading to college may encounter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior there — and educators and youth leaders have ways to manage an often overwhelming experience.

“For freshman going to college, it can be a very surprising experience, especially if you come from a tight-knit Jewish community, or a Jewish school,” says Andrew Getraer, the executive director of Rutgers University Hillel in New Brunswick. “Most high school students have never had to deal with such a variety of opinions and events, especially ones that may directly challenge their own.”

Getraer notes that while recent news like that of the Gaza flotilla raid is hard for government officials and adults to digest or respond to, “imagine how hard it is for 18-year-olds to hear Israel attacked on their own campus, just as it’s attacked on television news channels.”

Student groups often sponsor events condemning Israel, as The Jewish Standard has reported. Israeli Apartheid Week, for example, was held for its sixth consecutive year in March, on many campuses. According to the IAW website, the goal of the event is to “educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.”

IAW often invites speakers who are known for their virulent anti-Israel sentiments and critiques. Michael Cohen, a Wayne resident who is entering his junior year at Boston University, said of a speech by Noam Chomsky, a persistent and harsh critic of Israel, during IAW at his campus, “Growing up in a relatively sheltered community that had a large Jewish presence, I never experienced anything like it. I was shocked.”

The most effective way to respond to such attacks, according to Lauren Krol, director of the Young Professionals of Hasbara Fellowships, is for students to learn, and for advocacy groups to educate them, “about Israel’s true nature, as a democracy and a peace-seeking nation.”

The organization, founded in 2001, aims to establish successful Israel advocacy on campuses throughout the United States and Canada. It provides information, fact sheets, and educational videos on its website, www.israelactivism.com.

IAW was a hot topic during Hasbara’s workshop last winter. Students taking it wondered why there wasn’t a more united response across campuses. The result, according to Krol, was “Israel Peace Week.” In 2010, this program made its way to more than 30 different schools.

Krol encourages supporters of Israel to keep in mind that “they are on the front line; they should use every opportunity they have to get across a positive image, and they must always remember the bigger picture.”

Rutgers’ Getraer explains that situations on some campuses are more difficult for Jewish students than others. “Any campus might have a wide range of opinions,” he says, “and some may be anti-Israel — this can be very upsetting or confusing for many students.”

At Rutgers, he says, students are encouraged to tell Hillel about hostility in their dorms, in class, or on campus, because it can help.

Another simple recommendation, he said: Pick a school with a Jewish community. “We have over 5,000 Jewish students,” Getraer says of Rutgers. “If students feel threatened, they always have a place to go.”

Northern New Jersey Hillel — part of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey — runs Jewish student clubs at Bergen Community College (Paramus), Fairleigh Dickinson University Metropolitan (Teaneck) Campus, Ramapo College of New Jersey (Mahwah), and William Paterson University (Wayne). Director Rabbi Ely Allen explains that these local campuses do engage in classroom discussion and debate, but that overall, organized events like IAW are not as great a problem as on other campuses.

Allen says that college students are “in much better shape [to respond to anti-Israel attacks] because of Israel advocacy organizations that are partnering with Hillel; there are more and more of those organizations, which is definitely a big plus, because we all need to work together.”

 
 
 
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