Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Israeli Apartheid Week hits Sudbury

My latest article for Linchpin.

Israeli Apartheid Week hits Sudbury
by Scott Neigh

SUDBURY - March 4 to 11, 2010, marked the first ever Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at Laurentian University in Sudbury, a small city in Ontario's near north.

According to Marwa Dimassi of the Palestine Solidarity Working Group (PSWG), which organized the event locally, they wanted, "To educate people about what Israeli Apartheid Week is and to get a mobilization for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns."

IAW was first organized in 2005 in Toronto and has grown rapidly. This year more than 50 cities around the world are hosting events. The campaign's goal is to raise awareness of the apartheid character of the Israeli government's treatment of the Palestinian people and to build support for the 2005 call by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations for a BDS campaign against Israel, reminiscent of the international solidarity work conducted against apartheid in South Africa in earlier decades.

Though IAW was a new event and Laurentian tends to have relatively low levels of student activism, PSWG pulled off an ambitious slate of activities. This included seven films, talks by professors in several classes, public lectures by both local speakers and guests from out of town, and a spoken word performance. Reuben Roth, a professor in sociology and labour studies and another member of PSWG, said, "I've been teaching on this campus for about five years and I've never seen anything like this."

Alan Sears, who teaches sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto and is one of the founders of the group Faculty for Palestine, was one of the guest speakers. He said, "The exciting thing from my perspective is the closeness of students, faculty members, and unions in the effort".

He compared this to Toronto, one of the global hubs of the campaign where there is a much higher level of activity but where the vast majority of the energy to make it happen comes just from students.

Organizing on this issue in Sudbury was also distinct because of the relatively low level of existing awareness. Dimassi pointed out that in cities in southern Ontario there is "More multiculturalism." In contrast, she said, "Here, people are almost isolated from what's going on in those bigger cities."

Roth concurred, saying, "When I think of my students, who are typically working-class northern Ontario kids...[with IAW] they get to engage with voices they would not have an opportunity to engage with otherwise."

Another difference noted by Sears is that, "In Toronto there is an organized counter-current that at times is disruptive," but in Sudbury organizing by supporters of Israeli state policy was much less present.

It was not completely absent, however. Posters put up on campus advertising IAW events were consistently defaced and pulled down. The PSWG also experienced censorship from the university administration. An email announcing IAW events was sent out on a university events list but within several hours the administration had erased it from people's inboxes and sent out an apology for the possibly "incendiary language" of the original email. This is in the context of efforts in the broader society by supporters of Israeli government policy, including a motion passed by the Ontario Legislature, to condemn and attempt to stigmatize the language of 'Apartheid'.

Chris Mercer, the chief of staff and director of institutional planning at Laurentian, insisted, "We're not in the business of censoring any type of discussion." He continued, "As a university, we are not on any side of the fence... If they want to talk about something, they are welcome to do it."

Part way through IAW, the Laurentian administration agreed to resend the email but only after they had removed part of the text. To the surprise of the PSWG, the administration had no problem with the use of the word "apartheid" but demanded that material which explained why that word is an accurate description be removed.

During her IAW talk in Sudbury, Toronto-based graduate student and spoken word artist Rafeef Ziadah listed the many ways in which the behaviour of the Israeli government met the definition of apartheid in the United Nations convention which criminalizes it.

As well, in their statement on the week of events, the Sudbury organizers wrote, "Palestinian life in the occupied territories and Israel includes separate roads, schools, neighbourhoods, identity cards and even separate Palestinian and Israeli license plates. The apartheid character of Israeli state policies is undeniable and has long been recognized by South African [anti-apartheid activist] Archbishop Desmond Tutu and by Nelson Mandela, among many others. Mandela once said: 'Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinian people.'"

A local voice that has been critical of IAW is Dr. Jacque Abourbih, a physician and rabbi. Dr. Abourbih has written that though the organizers are careful about distinguishing their criticism of Israeli government policies from hostility towards Jews, "The lines become blurred and the distinction between the two becomes erased." He calls IAW a "fanatical, disproportionate focus on Israel" and "the unconscious instruments of an ancient hatred."

Roth, who is also Jewish, points to his involvement in this issue as a product of a long history of support for struggles against "colonial imperialism," including those by the peoples of Vietnam, Quebec, Ireland, and South Africa. He says, "When pro-Zionists suggest that we look elsewhere...it smacks of the worst kind of hypocrisy, as if I had come to this issue for some other reason than concern for social justice."

He argues that the position that criticism of Israel itself is anti-semitic "...is a perverse argument to make, and confusing to people as to what the nature of anti-semitism is." Based on his own involvement in struggles against anti-semitism, he worries that this position by supporters of Israel will distort public consciousness, saying, "Should anti-semitism in its real form rear its ugly head, I wonder how seriously it would be taken after all of these false calls."

The Sudbury and District Labour Council, in an initiative brought forward by members of the Laurentian University Faculty Association, also sponsored an educational event for union members which was not part of IAW.

One of the speakers was Mark Evard, the national director of the central region of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which has passed a motion at the national level calling for Israel to comply with international law and for support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign until that occurs.

Evard explains, "If we are going to fight for freedom and democracy on the work floor, we need to be concerned with freedom and democracy everywhere. If we aren't, we weaken the struggle everywhere."


Scott said...

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Anonymous said...

Way to go! So glad to hear that LU participated in Apartheid Week. I attended my first workshop on Palestine in Sudbury almost twenty years ago. And things just get worse, not better for the Palestinians.

I think I'm missing Sudbury......

Look forward to browsing through your blog. All the best.
Kaisa in rural Nova Scotia

Scott said...

Hi Kaisa...glad to hear you found the article useful!

That's interesting that you attended a workshop on Palestine here two decades ago...when people started doing stuff on the issue about a year and a half ago, during the assault on Gaza, there was a sense of doing something that hadn't been done in Sudbury before. Yet more evidence of how our histories get lost and erased, I guess! Do you happen to remember what group(s) put the workshop on twenty years ago?


Scott 8)

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

I wish I could remember. I used to belong to the Sudbury Amnesty International group but the session on Palestine wasn't organized by AI. When the Gulf War broke out a peace group emerged. We held vigils and had meetings to organize activities. John Rutherford from Laurentian was involved. Anyway, I wonder if someone took advantage of the situation in the Middle East to bring up a professor and some Palestinian and Jewish activists from Toronto. The sister of someone I knew was married to a Muslim so perhaps she had the contacts. After that I attended a UN sponsored NGO conference on Palestine in Montreal. I went because my interest was stirred up by the Sudbury workshop. If I remember more or even find the book I bought then or my notes ... I am packrat ... I'll let you know.

In March I attended Yves Engler's talk in Halifax about Canada's role in Israeli Apartheid. I highly recommend his book and you can watch his talk from Ottawa through http://www.dialoguewithdiversity.com

What I am finding rather shocking and amazing is the role of Christian Zionism, and not even the fanatical version, but just a common assumption that of course, Israel belongs to the Jews. I have noticed it more and more of late - like an NDP MLA in BC I just read about or the guy who yelled at me, as I held a Boycott Israel sign, telling me to check the Bible. I grew up with the same assumption thanks to my Lutheran "brainwashing"! How do we get past this block in the minds of so many Canadians?