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Dr Catherine Chatterley

DR. Catherine Chatterley:The History and Purpose of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW)

Dr. Catherine Chatterley, posted Feb 22, 2012


This lecture was delivered at Herzlia Synagogue in Winnipeg on February 11, 2012.

In the following presentation, I will attempt to explain the history and purpose of Israeli Apartheid Week (or IAW) and its connection to a much larger global political strategy designed to delegitimize and eventually dismantle the Jewish State.

IAW is a Canadian invention. The first event was held on one campus—at the University of Toronto—from January 31-February 4, 2005. The following year it included Montreal and Oxford; in 2007, it grew to 8 cities; in 2008, to 24 cities; to 38 cities in 2009; in 2010, to over 40 cities; and last year, it was held in over 97 cities worldwide. Clearly, this is a growing movement with momentum behind it.

The Soviet Origins of Contemporary Anti-Zionist Rhetoric

While the event is seven years old, the ideology at the heart of IAW is not. The accusation that Zionism is racist and imperialist by nature has existed since the establishment of the State of Israel. The Soviet Union was the leading proponent of this conception of Zionism and it drew on the long tradition of antisemitism articulated by elements of the European Left, who identified Jewish nationalism and capitalist imperialism with Judaism and the Jewish bourgeoisie. Within this political tradition, Jewish nationalism was seen as divisive and reactionary, opposed to progressive politics, and based upon an artificial ethnic-religious construct that elevated Jews above other peoples. The USSR voted for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1947 because Stalin thought its socialist founders would place it firmly in the Soviet orbit. However, within a year of the establishment of the State of Israel, Stalin began to see Zionism as a serious threat to the Soviet Union and its interests. Israel was accused of working in tandem with American imperialism, both in the Middle East and as part of a “wider conspiracy” inside the USSR. From 1949 until his death in March 1953, Stalin engaged in a full assault on the Jews of the Soviet Union, who were then considered “bourgeois nationalists,” “rootless cosmopolitans,” and a Zionist fifth column. Soviet antisemitism fixated on Zionists and their so-called conspiracy with Western capitalism and imperialism, and it is this Soviet thinking and rhetoric that was introduced into the republics of Eastern Europe, throughout the developing post-colonial world—including the Arab states—and into the United Nations.

The Six-Day War in June 1967 was a crushing defeat for the Arab armies, but also for the USSR and its international prestige. From this point forward, Soviet anti-Zionist rhetoric regularly used Nazi analogies, accusing Israel of behaving like Hitler, practicing racism, fascism, and genocide against the Palestinian Arabs. In a re-deployment of classic European antisemitic tropes, Zionists were accused of having a controlling influence in the Western media, industry, and banking, and were accused of working with the United States to advance their interests against those of international communism. In his most recent history of antisemitism, entitled A Lethal Obsession, Robert Wistrich discusses the historical development and distribution of this Soviet anti-Zionist ideology in explicit detail, and illustrates how its strategy to isolate and delegitimize Zionism precipitated the 1975 UN Resolution 3379, which stated that “Zionism is a form of racism and racist discrimination.” Another Resolution that same year, number 77, stated that the “racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin, forming a whole and having the same racist structure and being organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being.” And again, that year, the non-aligned countries released a Political Declaration and Strategy to Strengthen International Peace and Security, which condemned Zionism as a “threat to world peace and security and called upon all countries to oppose this racist and imperialist ideology.” Two years earlier, UN Resolution 3151 had condemned “the unholy alliance between South African racism and Zionism.” Clearly, these accusations and the Apartheid analogy are not new; however, they were never commonly accepted in the West and they had no real impact on our mainstream thinking. Today, this is no longer the case.

UN Resolution 3379 was finally annulled in 1991, the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed, but its echoes were heard again at Durban I, the World Conference Against Racism, held from August 31 to September 8, 2001 under UN auspices in South Africa. Charged with discussing a number of controversial subjects including slavery and reparations, much of the conference was dedicated to the so-called racist crimes of Zionism. Iran and Syria inserted six references to Zionism as a form of racism into the draft documents produced before the official conference, which were eventually removed from the final documents. It is important to note that, at this supposed anti-racist conference, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion—the most libelous, antisemitic text in history—was distributed to delegates by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee of South Africa.

 The BDS Movement & Israeli Apartheid Week

Four years after Durban I, in 2005, Israeli Apartheid Week was born in Toronto. That July, 170 Palestinian civil society organizations released an official call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (better known as BDS) against Israel until it complied with International Law. This document clearly stated that the call by Palestinian civil society was modeled on the example of the South African struggle against Apartheid: “We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace. These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by: 1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and, 3) Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

So, Israeli Apartheid Week was created to support the BDS movement and both advocate for a one-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East, which clearly means the erasure of a state with a Jewish majority.

Those of us who attended university in the late eighties and early nineties know how powerful and effective the anti-Apartheid movement, including its calls for divestment and boycotts, was on Canadian campuses. By 1983 the United Nations had twice condemned South Africa at the World Conference Against Racism, and a significant movement was pressuring investors to disinvest from South Africa and from companies involved in its economy. By the end of the 1980s, 25 countries, including the US, Canada, and the UK, had passed laws placing trade sanctions on South Africa and forbidding corporations in their jurisdictions from doing business with South African companies. South African apartheid finally collapsed in 1993 and the international campaign dedicated to its delegitimation, including well-organized campus activism, was thought to be the major catalyst in its dismantlement.

 Moving “Good People” to Action

This, then, is the successful model chosen by Pro-Palestinian activists to dismantle the Jewish State. By framing Israel as a racist apartheid state, boycott, divestment, and sanctions become an entirely appropriate and morally correct plan of action. If Israel can be characterized as the new South Africa, it will become a pariah state that few people will support and it will come under increasing pressure from its Western allies. IAW is a movement designed specifically for Western consumption and it targets the same constituencies that worked so effectively against South African Apartheid in the 1980s and 1990s—students, churches, trade unions, anti-war activists, anti-racist activists, women’s rights activists, gay rights activists, and people in progressive politics generally. Its goal is to introduce the Palestinian perspective and experience to the Western world and to gradually convince the public that Israel has no moral or historical legitimacy, and therefore no right to exist. The only moral solution to this conflict, we are told, is to dismantle the discriminatory policies that allow Israel to maintain its Jewish majority and to establish one democratic state in Palestine.

This is precisely the stated purpose of IAW: to “provide solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by exerting urgent pressure on Israel to alter its current structure and practices as an apartheid state [and to] contribute to [the] chorus of international opposition to Israeli apartheid and to bolster support for the BDS campaign in accordance with the demands outlined in the July 2005 statement.”

The goal of IAW is explicitly and unapologetically political, and yet the rhetoric of IAW is left open enough to incorporate three dominant but conflicting perspectives: 1) critics of Israel who still support a two-state solution based upon the return to pre-1967 borders; 2) those who support the dismantling of the current Jewish State and its replacement with one (highly theoretical) secular democratic state; and, 3) those who support the destruction of Israel by any means necessary. All three perspectives are found amongst supporters of IAW and the BDS campaign and therefore the lines are sometimes blurred between harsh criticism of the State of Israel, outright condemnation of its continued existence, and calls for its eradication. One of the troubling aspects of this movement is the fact that there is apparent cooperation between those who call for the dismantlement or destruction of the Jewish State and those who support a two state solution within the pre-1967 borders. One would assume that these diametrically opposed outcomes would preclude cooperation but this is not the case today. The larger political ideals of the BDS/IAW movement may help to explain this alliance.

 Resistance Through Human Solidarity

The Israeli Apartheid Week website claims to be playing “an important role in raising awareness and disseminating information about Zionism, the Palestinian liberation struggle and its similarities with the indigenous sovereignty struggle in North America and the South African anti-Apartheid movement.” It is important to realize that IAW is not only about the Palestinians—the supporters of IAW see themselves as part of a larger resistance movement promoting solidarity “across borders in [a] global struggle against racism and oppression.” There is a concerted effort by organizers to build alliances with other communities, with indigenous peoples, and with the disenfranchised in general. Last year’s statement in support of IAW by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) makes this strategy clear: “Whereas student and youth movements played a key role in ending Apartheid in South Africa, IAW is currently one of the most important tools to educate people about the nature of Israel as a colonial apartheid system and to build on the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement . . . We also take this opportunity to salute our sisters and brothers from around the world who are also struggling against racism, colonialism and oppression. From the landless peoples' movements of South Africa and Latin America, to the indigenous sovereignty struggles of the original nations of the Americas and Australia, to struggles of racialized and migrant communities the world over: our struggle is one and the same, a struggle for human dignity that will no doubt, one day, be victorious.”

Goals & Implications: Isolation and Demonization   

So, what are the larger, perhaps more subtle, implications of this political strategy to mark Israel as a racist apartheid state? First, IAW makes a clear alliance between the just struggles of common humanity to alleviate real human suffering. Then, this benevolent alliance of humanity is set up against the evil forces that create and maintain injustice and suffering, which in this context are labeled Zionism and Israel. So, just as in the protest movement against racist South Africa, we have the creation of a polarized, Manichean context between evil, racist Israel (and its supporters) and the rest of humanity. Today, students are learning about Zionism and Israel—and thereby also about the Jewish people—from campus events sponsored by an organization that conceives of them as racist and imperialist.

Another theme at work here, which some people may not recognize is the classic antisemitic opposition between “the Jews” and common humanity, both powerful imaginary abstractions. In the antisemitic imagination, “the Jews” have always conspired against the interests of common humanity, against all that is good and just, for their own selfish, particularistic interests. The demonization of Zionism replicates this exact dynamic and places Zionists outside the boundaries of humanity.      

IAW is a very smart political strategy on the part of pro-Palestinian activists. Students care about racism and human rights—and so they should. As a result, they can be easily and actively mobilized against those labeled racists and human rights violators, for whom there is little sympathy in our contemporary culture. IAW depends upon, and takes advantage of, the lack of public and student knowledge about Zionism, Israel, Jewish history, and the very complex history of the Middle East, and it also depends upon widespread ignorance about the history of South Africa and its system of white-supremacist Apartheid. It is relatively easy to make a comparison if people are ignorant about the examples being compared. It is also helpful if the nature of the discussion is highly emotional—it feels like apartheid—instead of scholarly, which is my general impression of the quality of events sponsored by IAW.

Today, Israel is confronting a coordinated global strategy to weaken its connection to the West (including the Jewish Diaspora) by delegitimizing Zionism. Re-branding Israel a racist apartheid state that abuses human rights and violates international law, allows the delegitimization movement to demand boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israelis in all areas (from culture to sport to business to academe), to have Western courts issue arrest warrants for visiting Israeli officials, to pursue these officials in the International Criminal Court, and to justify antisemitism and anti-Israelism as legitimate forms of anti-Zionist or anti-racist resistance. If this pressure can build to the point of isolating Israel from its allies in the West, specifically from the population at large; if speaking out in defense of Israel is made the equivalent of defending racism and apartheid, then the hope is that Israel will eventually collapse in isolation or be coerced into negotiations that make it vulnerable to dismantlement or actual destruction. This is the larger strategic context in which IAW must be understood if we are to see it clearly for the political programme it is.

IAW and the BDS campaign are part of a growing global political strategy to delegitimize and dismantle the Jewish State—this popular revolution is coercive but the coercion is rhetorical and emotional rather than physical. I would suggest that it is a mistake to ignore this growing political movement with the naïve hope that it will simply disappear. All evidence points to the contrary. Speaking as a historian trained in the history of modern Europe and modern Jewish history, I believe it is fundamentally dishonest for any political movement to recast Zionism as a racist form of European colonialism when in actual fact it was an emancipatory movement for Jewish self-determination—one that developed a new urgency and legitimacy with the wholesale destruction of Jewish Europe by a real form of racist European imperialism, better known as National Socialism.
Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Founding Director, Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA)
University of Manitoba, Department of History
Important Links
2. Stop the JNF:
3. Lecture by Professor John Mearsheimer, “The Future of Palestine”:
4. Report on the Delegitimation Challenge, Reut Institute:

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