NEW YORK (JTA) — At universities across the globe, the annual springtime ritual known as Israel Apartheid Week is kicking off this week, 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 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 Web site 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.
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 1-14. 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 — shorthand 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 is J Street and its campus arm, J Street U, and the liberal Zionist group Ameinu.
J Street has taken a slightly different tack than the other groups, largely eschewing on-campus flyers 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 with 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 Web site 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."