BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Palestine solidarity activists launched the 10th annual Israeli Apartheid Week in North America and the UK last week, as their counterparts around the world prepared to mobilize throughout the month of March.
Israeli Apartheid Week is a global campaign that seeks to raise awareness about the discrimination faced by Palestinians and to rally support in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.
Activists are organizing IAW events in more than 150 cities around the world this year, including 36 locations in North America, according to organizers.
Activists credit the week of events -- which takes place at different times in late February and throughout March depending on local schedules -- for encouraging a major shift in discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the last decade. Once a major taboo, criticism of Israeli policies against Palestinians has become mainstream, and thousands have become involved in pro-Palestine solidarity groups around the world.
Nowhere has this shift been more noticeable than on university campuses in North America and much of Western Europe, where majorities traditionally supported Israeli policies.
In the last year, a number of academic associations have come out in favor of the boycott of Israel, including the 5,000-member strong American Studies Association
, while student associations in Toronto, Scotland, and California have voted in favor of resolutions to divest from companies linked to the Israeli occupation.
Danya Mustafa, an IAW national coordinator in the United States, told Ma'an that much of the work in the United States emerges from coalitions formed by local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, a grassroots national organization.
"IAW has fostered critical discussion and is getting people talking about Israeli state policies," she said, highlighting that the focus of IAW has shifted over the years from education to campaigns to pressure university administrations to divest from companies that do business with the Israeli occupation.
IAW is also creating "more momentum in mobilizing other social justice organizations behind divestment," Mustafa said, as student groups from a wide variety of backgrounds increasingly take part in Palestinian solidarity events and actions.
"The conversation on Palestine is now at the forefront of discussions at universities," Mustafa added.
The 'criminalization' of student activism
Max Geller, an SJP leader at Northeastern University in Boston, argues that widespread participation in IAW "symbolizes changing times on US campuses in particular and the country in general," as criticism of Israel has increasingly become the norm rather than the exception.
At the same time, however, Geller pointed out that this success has been met by repressive measures, highlighting a widening gap between how student leaders think about Israel compared to university authorities.
Last week, for example, students affiliated with Geller's group posted mock eviction notices on student dorms to raise awareness about Palestinian home demolitions.
"We wanted to simulate the all-too-common Palestinian experience of waking up one morning to discover that your presence on your land has suddenly become illegal," Geller explained, highlighting that the flyer stated in large letters that the eviction notices were not in fact real.
Within a day of the flyers' distribution, however, Geller said that members began receiving "harassing phone calls" from university police, which he claims was spurred on by the campus' local chapter of Hillel, a national Jewish student organization.
The Northeastern University police department did not respond to an email seeking comment, but a statement released by the university Hillel said that they had prompted the university administration to work with the police department to begin a "thorough investigation."
"This criminalizing of student activism only goes to show the extent to which Zionist campus groups are willing to go to prevent criticism of Israel on campus," Geller said.
"While it feels like we in the US are finally catching up to the rest of the world in terms of identifying with the Palestinian cause, the reaction to our mock evictions also indicates how far we have to go and how much we have to overcome," he added.
Opponents use 'deflective strategies'
Divestment efforts have taken off at campuses across the United States, as students have launched numerous campaigns to pressure university administrations to ensure that official funds are not linked to Israeli policies against Palestinians.
Sarah Rahimi, a member of SJP at the University of California Los Angeles, stressed how their campus' version of Israeli Apartheid Week (entitled "Palestine Awareness Week") had laid the groundwork for a divestment campaign which culminated last week and targeted five companies involved in Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians.
During the week, "there was a specific focus on our university's investments and involvements," she said. Students would "come and learn about the situation and be upset, but when they found out that the university's funds are invested in such human rights violations, they were shocked."
Despite the campaign's success in allying with a diverse array of student groups, the divestment bill was not able to pass student government.
"There were very few arguments against the bill itself," she told Ma'an, arguing that "it's difficult to argue against a bill that essentially says, 'we should not be giving money to and making money off of violence.'"
Instead, Rahimi pointed out that outside Zionist organizations had rallied against the bill, and on-campus opponents utilized "deflective strategies" including the accusation that the "bill is designed to simply alienate the Jewish community."
Students read a mock "Israeli apartheid wall" at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA SJP)
An atmosphere of 'hatred'
Critics counter that Israeli Apartheid Week itself contributes to an unproductive campus environment for debate and the "demonization" of Israel.
Hannah Brady, the founder and manager of the "Rethink 2014" campaign in opposition to IAW, told Ma'an that the week of events "encourages hatred towards Israelis and those who support Israel on campus."
Rethink 2014, however, seeks to "open space for dialogue and discussion as possible," Brady said, adding that Zionist students often feel intimidated by IAW events like the construction of mock separation walls and checkpoints on campuses.
"Improving campus climates is what leads to better discussion, by creating an environment in which more people feel able to enter into conversation," she added.
Brady argues that IAW does not foster this kind of environment, as the week "exaggerates and emphasizes division and cultivates an 'us and them' attitude," highlighting a student submission to the Rethink 2014 campaign that argued IAW "tries to force Jewish students to choose between their heritage and their humanity."
A photograph from the campaign
'There is nothing unsafe about granting basic rights'
Israeli Apartheid Week organizers, however, are not convinced.
Sarah Rahimi, the UCLA student activist, responded to accusations about Israeli Apartheid Week and divestment campaigns creating an "unsafe" environment by highlighting how unsafe campuses already are for pro-Palestinian students.
"There is nothing safe about having to prove your humanity daily and being forced to fund violence against your own people," she explained, adding: "There is nothing unsafe about granting someone their basic rights as human beings, unless someone is trying to imply that their rights depend upon the oppression of others."
"It speaks volumes about the amount of privilege behind such a comment, when the most threatening or unsafe thing imaginable to someone is a bill that seeks to attack corporations that enable human rights violations," she said, referring specifically to opponents of the divestment bill at UCLA.
Despite the divestment bill's failure to pass, Rahimi is optimistic about the future and about IAW's role in mobilizing a global movement in solidarity with Palestinians.
"I am incredibly hopeful because I see that the movement is only gaining solidarity and, in its own ways, inspiring other movements for other, similar causes," she said, adding: "Whatever the tipping point was, we passed it this week and from here on onwards, I see us gaining a lot of momentum."