In March 2005, a group of activists from the Arab Student Collective at the University of Toronto launched the first Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). The aim of the week was two-fold. On one hand, it sought to break the wall of silence and misrepresentation around what was happening in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip at the time of the second Palestinian intifada. On the other hand, it aimed to situate direct military violence against Palestinians within the broader context of Israel’s apartheid policies. Focusing on the broader system of Israeli apartheid allowed activists to link the construction of the Apartheid Wall in the occupied West Bank, settler violence and home demolitions to a broader system which systematically discriminated against the civil and political rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel, or 1948 Palestinians, and denied the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland.
Six years later, IAW is taking place in more than 40 cities in five continents, and is a key event in the yearly calendar of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations on 9 July 2005. Outside its North American and European centers, IAW is also taking place in South Africa, Palestine, Lebanon and Australia. South African anti-apartheid activists have played a key role in the promotion of IAW, including former African National Congress member Ronnie Kasrils who opened IAW in London, New York and Toronto in 2009.
Situating the Palestinian struggle in the context of anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements has also allowed strong alliances to be forged at the local level. In Canada, for instance, IAW has worked to build solidarity with First Nations communities, and is endorsed by a broad base of progressive organizations. This focus is also reflected in the themes tackled during the week itself. In Toronto, for example, the 2010 IAW program includes a night focusing on the environmental costs of apartheid, another on queer solidarity activism in the anti-apartheid movement and one on “Fighting Racism, Fighting Apartheid.” Overall, IAW has become an arena to promote a broad anti-colonial and anti-racist vision and to build solidarity between movements working towards this vision and resisting settler colonialism throughout the world.
Forming these types of alliances has been important to resist attempts to shut down IAW. These are not limited to harassment and verbal abuse by Zionist groups on campuses; over the years, organizers have faced ongoing institutional harassment, including last-minute cancellation of room bookings and the banning of Apartheid Week materials. In fall 2008, for instance, room bookings for an IAW organizing conference in Toronto were cancelled on short notice by the university under pressure of local Zionist groups. Similarly, in March 2009, the University of Pisa, Italy, denied university venues to IAW organizers. In the same year, the poster for the 5th International Israeli Apartheid Week was banned at Carleton University in Ottawa and Trent University in Peterborough.
IAW has also been the object of investigation by the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA), a highly contentious initiative that has been defined by the Canadian Independent Jewish Voices as an “attempt to attack free speech and silence criticism of the Israeli government’s oppressive and illegal policies” and “to label criticism of Israel and its behavior, as well as organized efforts to change them, as anti-Semitic and to criminalize both.”
Attempts at shutting down IAW on campuses are in line with growing efforts of the Israeli government to crush the BDS movement. To the present time, this crackdown has primarily targeted Palestinian grassroots activists within the occupied West Bank, including Mohammad Othman Jamal Juma’ from the Stop the Wall Campaign, recently released from prison.
However, a recent report published by the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, and presented at the 10th Herzliya Conference in February 2010 identifies a global campaign of “delegitimization” of Israel — which includes the BDS movement and IAW — as one that “is effective, possesses strategic significance, and may develop into a comprehensive existential threat within a few years.” As such, it also underlines the need for Israel to engage in a substantial diplomatic counter-effort to sabotage the movement.
While this means that organizers will face increasing obstacles in the coming years, it also testifies to the growing strength of the BDS movement, which has reached fundamental targets in the last year, including the divestment of the Norwegian state pension fund from Israeli military contractor Elbit Systems in September 2009. On university campuses, the year 2009 marked the first campus-based divestment, as on 7 February the Board of Trustees at Hampshire College in the United States divested from six Israeli companies directly involved in human rights violations against Palestinians. Similar divestment campaigns have been launched on various university campuses, including Carleton University in Ottawa. Last year also saw the Canadian Union of Public Employees pass a motion in support of the boycott at its provincial meeting in Windsor.
It is in this context that the 6th International Israeli Apartheid Week is centered around “Solidarity in Action: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” celebrating the achievements of the past five years and preparing the next ones. A diverse program of events — lectures, demonstrations, film screenings and other cultural activities — will take place throughout the world between 1-14 March 2010.
Ilaria Giglioli is an IAW organizer at the University of Toronto.