Israeli Apartheid Week: How campus activism is being shut down by false charges of 'anti-Semitism'

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Cancellation of Friends of Palestine event followed calls by pro-Israel groups for supporters to bombard universities with complaints

Earlier this week, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) cancelled an event planned as part of "Israeli Apartheid Week", on the grounds that it “contravenes” a controversial definition of anti-Semitism recently endorsed by the UK government.

The panel event, "Debunking misconceptions on Palestine and the importance of BDS", was organised by the UCLan Friends of Palestine society. I was one of the speakers scheduled to speak.

There are three particularly disturbing aspects to this decision by the UCLan authorities.

First, the event organisers – as well as speakers like myself – only found out about the cancellation by reading about it on the Jewish Chronicle website. The university excluded students in the Friends of Palestine society from the decision-making process concerning the event, and there was no attempt to dialogue with organisers about the event once concerns had been raised.

UCLan thus threw its students under a bus, riding roughshod over their rights to freedom of expression – and even going against the university’s own policy that “lawful and open debate is the right way for our students to challenge views with which they disagree”.

Second, the university quite clearly bowed to pressure from external, pro-Israel advocacy groups. The day before the cancellation was announced, StandWithUs, North West Friends of Israel, and Sussex Friends of Israel began urging their supporters to bombard the university with complaints.

A reminder of who these groups are: North West Friends of Israel calls Jewish critics of Israel "self-hating Jews", Sussex Friends of Israel activists harass peaceful protesters, and StandWithUs has received funds from the Israeli government itself to undermine Palestine solidarity activism.

It was only after pressure from these groups that UCLan authorities pulled the event – a decision they informed pro-Israel activists of even before releasing their subsequent, official statement.

REVEALED: UK universities told tomanage' Palestine activism

The third, disturbing aspect of this affair is UCLan’s claim that the event “contravenes” a government-endorsed definition of anti-Semitism, referring to a text formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and “formally adopted” by the UK government.

That phrase is important – the definition does not constitute legislation, which means it is unclear what the university meant by saying the “proposed event would not be lawful.”

Whose definition of anti-Semitism?

Moreover, and crucially, university officials have still not told me, or students, how they came to their decision that the event violated the so-called definition.

But what about the definition itself? According to David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, the IHRA definition is “bewilderingly imprecise”, and also “carries dangers” with its accompanying list of 11 examples – seven of which “deal with criticism of Israel”.

“Crucially”, Feldman continued, “there is a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not anti-Semitic.”

The IHRA definition is almost identical to a document published in 2005 by a European Union agency as a "working draft", only to be ditched by its successor body. Yet some, like the Campaign Against Antisemitism, falsely claim that the definition was granted some kind of official status by the EU.

The definition, and its slight variations, has been heavily criticised for its conflation of genuine anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel. In the US, the definition’s advocates are opposed by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Setting a precedent

Instructively, UCLan’s decision to prohibit the Israeli Apartheid Week panel event was praised by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who hoped it would be a “precedent” and “turning point in the struggle to curb the demonization [of Israel].”

The head of "government affairs" at the centre, Mark Weitzman, also welcomed the move – and in the same statement, acknowledged his “pivotal role” in getting the IHRA – where he serves as chair of the committee on anti-Semitism – to adopt the definition in the first place.

These efforts by apologists for the Israeli government are designed to do two things: distract from the ongoing displacement of Palestinians and colonisation of their land, and stifle efforts and campaigns by Palestinians and their allies to draw attention to, and protest, such policies.

Yet while diehard Israel apologists like Michael Gove believe talk of Israel and apartheid is “hate speech”, Palestinians, Israelis, and international human rights experts have long asserted that the Israeli government is conducting policies that constitute the prohibited practice.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter are among those who have used the ‘A’ word. As John Dugard, a South African legal scholar and former UN special rapporteur put it: “It is Israel's own version of a system that has been universally condemned.”

According to Israeli NGO B’Tselem, the “regime of separation” created by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), is “based on discrimination, applying two separate systems of law in the same area and basing the rights of individuals on their nationality.”

The well-known human rights group – who have also described specific policies such as movement restrictions an “apartheid practice” – adds: “This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and is reminiscent of distasteful regimes from the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa.”

Banning the A word - as used by Israelis

Just in the last couple of months, Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published articles such as "Another Brick in the Apartheid Wall" and "Israeli Coverage of the Incident at Umm al-Hiran Is Proof That Apartheid Exists".

Last week, an Israeli TV political correspondent – in a discussion about a one-state or two-state solution – noted: “Leaving things just the way they are is an apartheid state.”

In 2010, former Israeli PM Ehud Barak stated that “as long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic.” He added: “If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

John Kerry issued a similar warning – using the word "apartheid" – in 2014. But note that the scenario described by Barak is not a future hypothetical; it actually describes the status quo, where Israel has forged a de facto one state including millions of citizenship-less Palestinians under military rule.

'If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state' - Ehud Barak, former Israeli PM

In 2012, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) published damning conclusions, following the State of Israel’s periodic review (to which, note, the Netanyahu government submitted evidence).

CERD urged Israel “to make every effort to eradicate all forms of segregation between Jewish and non-Jewish communities” – and that’s inside the Green Line. The committee also deplored “discriminatory laws especially targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

With respect to the West Bank, moreover, CERD urged Israel “to take immediate measures to prohibit and eradicate any such policies or practices which…violate the provisions of article 3 of the Convention” – the article which condemns “racial segregation and apartheid”.

Even if one disagrees with all those aforementioned parties – Palestinians, Israelis, international human rights experts and others – who believe Israeli policies are a form of apartheid, it is extraordinary to assert that such a claim is "anti-Semitic".

Yet that is precisely what many seek to do, including the Israeli government and its willing allies here in the UK, even as Netanyahu’s government of extremist ministers press ahead with grave violations of international law and ultra-nationalist legislation.

That is why Israeli Apartheid Week remains vital, and why there must be a clear and concerted pushback against those who wish to silence and censor.

- Ben White is the author of  Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide and Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy. He is a writer for Middle East Monitor and his articles have been published by Al Jazeera, al-Araby, Huffington Post, The Electronic Intifada, The Guardian's Comment is Free and more.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Palestinian Bedouin school girl walks at her school in the village of Khan al-Ahmar in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on February 23, 2017 (AFP)