Israel Apartheid Week strikes a significant chord with the Jewish community everywhere. As the cardboard, graffiti-covered walls and faux-checkpoints go up around university campuses, so do the leaflets, tweets and Facebook posts about Jewish-Arab coexistence, Palestinian terrorism, “the real Israel/apartheid/take your pick”. On both sides the dialogue is vicious, hateful, and uncompromising. On both sides it involves the wilful distortion of truth and consistent over-simplification in order to put forward one aggressive narrative. Liberal Zionists find themselves stuck in the middle.
Israel Apartheid Week whips up a storm of hatred against a place many of us hold dear, and an aggressive dehumanisation of a population we are often very familiar with. In the manic fervour surrounding IAW events, nuance is frequently lost in any discussion or event. I sat with several Jewish students in the SOAS (University of London) Student Union last year during a debate on the academic boycott of Israel listening to the entire room scream that Israel will be burned to the ground. This is not infrequent during IAW.
This year saw a mock Israeli checkpoint at Cambridge University, with students dressed up in khaki and wielding fake guns. A similar event was held at Leeds University, with one Jewish student reporting feeling threatened, particularly by the Israeli flag armbands the students bore. At SOAS, their yearly cardboard replica of the separation barrier was again erected outside the university, covered with phrases such as “illegal under international law” and “cutting people off from schools, hospitals, food, water”.
This kind of environment is not only painful for Jewish students, but tends to encourage instances of overt antisemitism. It is a week where we see kosher food removed from Student Union shop shelves and Jewish students evicted from student societies on account of their Zionist beliefs. Some Jewish students report feeling endangered, particularly on smaller or more hostile campuses, and are compelled to travel around in groups, or avoid their campus all together.
At the same time, liberal Zionists are forced to wrestle with the points and ideas being aired, and the response of the mainstream Jewish community. Many of us are very aware of the violence and injustice of the occupation, and are actively involved in battling it. As such, we can be uncomfortable with responses from the wider Jewish community which tend to whitewash Israel and deny the problems we know to be true.
Last November I was lucky enough to attend an incredible four-day trip around Israel and the West Bank with Yachad, a pro-Israel pro-peace organisation based in the UK. We were exposed to a wide variety of opinions and realities surrounding the occupation, meeting with Israeli NGOs, think tanks and human rights workers, Palestinian activists, Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and members of the Israeli government. What resounded for us was becoming aware of the depth of violence, injustice and inequality in the occupation. None of us were naive of this before, but many of these things we experienced we’d previously only heard about through the prism of anti-Israel discourse and activism. It’s hard to glean accurate information from organisations committed to one narrative, or to trust people who perpetuate such antisemitism. It is equally hard to deny what you experience as a reality.
Both our own experiences and what we heard first-hand from Palestinians and Israeli human rights workers forced us to wrestle with the label of apartheid. We all, obviously, had very different and passionate view points; but it was not important for us all to draw one coherent conclusion. That is the biggest failing of labelling Israel and/or the occupation as apartheid. The strength of the images and connotations it represents instantly shut down a nuanced and critical approach to the occupation, to the conflict, and to the interactions of Israelis and Palestinians. The situation here is not South Africa; it comes with its own context, history(ies), politics, nationalisms and narratives. That is not to say the occupation does not, in so many appalling ways, resemble apartheid South Africa. But it is something that should be interrogated in its own context, and the suffering of the Palestinians should stand on its own merit.
So what can liberal Zionists do around this time, stuck between the whirlwind of hatred and antisemitism, the injustices of occupation, and the battles of distorted narratives? Engage. Engage with the conflict and the occupation. Engage with each other. Engage with your own ideas and (mis)conceptions. Support those organisations that are striving to do the same thing, on either side of the Atlantic. The Forward wrote back in November about a brilliant guide to Israel/Palestine activism, which I am very enthusiastic about, having worked or currently working with many of the organisations listed. Many of them could greatly do with support – financial or otherwise – at a time when Israel’s left-wing NGOs are under attack. If you are able, participate in their work in the region, and learn more about the nuances of the conflict, and what you can do to help. After a taking part in a similar Yachad trip to mine and becoming aware of some of the injustices of the military court system in the West Bank, a group of British students were motivated to raise money for a lawyer to defend Palestinian children caught in the system, a useful and constructive contribution.
Equally importantly, support each other. Reach out to liberal Zionist friends. Become more involved with liberal Zionist organisations locally. Unite with a large and international community who share your values. For Jewish students on campus especially, IAW can be an emotional struggle. Find ways to consistently remind yourself, and be reminded, that you are not alone.
Israel Apartheid Week is an aggressive battle between two polarised narratives. Despite the elements of truth in both sides, neither achieve anything helpful. There are many more ways to raise awareness of the occupation, discuss the complexities of Israel and the conflict, help Palestinians on the ground, and battle antisemitism without resorting to the kind of hatred we see at this time of year. Liberal Zionists should look to each other and to the organisations and communities engaging helpfully with the conflict. There is great work being done.