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Israel Apartheid Week prompts controversy

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Section: Front Page, News

March 7, 2014

On Monday night, Lown auditorium hosted a packed audience, ready to listen to award-winning journalist Max Blumenthal deliver the keynote address of Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week. Sponsored by Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace, the week of events was brought to the Brandeis campus to engage students, faculty and staff in discussion about discriminatory policies in Israel that disproportionately target Palestinians, Arab-Israelis and African-immigrants, according to Aya Aziz ’16, member of the Brandeis SJP.

Aziz’s opening remarks also spoke to the importance of deconstructing the word “apartheid.”

“The only way we can engage in discourse is if it’s inclusive discourse,” Aziz said. “In breaking down the word ‘apartheid,’ we want to understand what it means and all of its dimensions and to include all voices on this issue, especially those who don’t agree with the use of the word.”

Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) is an international series of events held in cities and campuses all over the world. According to the organization, the aim of IAW is to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system to bolster support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The first Israel Apartheid week was held in 2005, and since then the series of events has garnered much controversy and has developed a plethora of literature and analysis to challenge the alleged apartheid.

Formerly an author at The Daily Beast and Al Akhbar, Max Blumenthal is an American journalist, filmmaker, blogger and author of national best-seller “Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party” and “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.” Blumenthal previously worked for Media Matters for America, a politically progressive media watchdog group that is dedicated to analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media. He has also created several short video reports, featuring interviews with attendees from the Republican National Convention in July 2007 as well as footage of youth in Jerusalem in June 2009, shortly before President Obama’s Cairo address.

Blumenthal’s talk focused on his recently published book, “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.” The book is a product of the last four years of his research, including spending more than one year living in both Israel and Palestinian territories to report on Israel-Palestine at a transitional phase. He said that he mainly focuses on 2009 and what has happened since Israel has elected what he claims to be “the most right-wing government in its history.”

Blumenthal talked about conditions for Palestinians and Sudanese refugees living under what he claims is a “questionable democratic state.” He compares “Goliath” to a New York Times bestseller, “My Promised Land,” written by Israeli author Ari Shavit, who is praised for honoring Zionism while simultaneously criticizing its founding sins. In his book, Shavit acknowledges what happened in 1947 and 1948 as “criminal” and that it was “ethnic cleansing to expel 750,000 people.” Blumenthal agrees with Shavit, specifically in his regard to Israel’s form of government.

“Shavit addresses Israel as a modern, normal democracy when for its Palestinian citizens, and for the Palestinians who live under Israeli control, it’s not,” Blumenthal said.

As a middle-class Jew growing up in Washington, D.C., Blumenthal said most of his classmates were forced to take an uncompromising stand, where the choice was “Israel: right or wrong.”

“I decided to question things, but I was forced to do so. Most Americans aren’t. And so it’s very hard for most Americans to develop these seeds of doubt in their minds or to get information,” he said.

Blumenthal spoke about the presence of university campuses influencing the future of this debate.

“It’s increasingly here and on campuses across the country that the future will be determined, where there is still enough political and physical space to make that change unlike in Israel-Palestine,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal spent some time speaking about the concerted, organized attempts that have tried to stop his book tours from happening, specifically about the students at Brandeis who reached out to him via social media. One Brandeis student called him an “anti-Semite” multiple times via Twitter, and another student, Joshua Nass ’14, received national attention from The Jewish Press for offering $5,000 of his own money to challenge apartheid promoters.

“What’s disturbing to me is that this campaign of incitement, of attacking people with what are basically ethnic slurs, is being encouraged. It’s a top-down campaign, and we’re seeing this all around the country, to suppress discussion and to prevent the free flow of information and to undermine protected speech as well as our freedoms as Americans,” Blumenthal said.

Lauren Jappe ’14, member of Brandeis SJP, said that Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week was initially not supported by the Brandeis community and has continued to receive harsh criticism from students, faculty and staff.

“Any events that reveal a commitment to the Palestinian narrative bring about hateful messages,” Jappe said. “But the fact that much of this is through the Internet speaks to how much braver people can be behind their computers rather than in person.”

Jappe said that she and other members of her club have received hateful text messages, Facebook messages, emails and more. She believes Israel Apartheid Week is just the beginning of a discussion that needs to continue, especially in breaking down the meaning of the word “apartheid.”

“I think the Brandeis community needs to stop being so focused on being comfortable with what’s going on in the Middle East. We use the word ‘apartheid’ because we believe it’s a real situation and it’s a loud word that gets people’s attention. It’s important that people stop prioritizing their own comfort over the injustices that are being done to the Palestinians. I encourage the Brandeis community to challenge the comfortable narratives and start looking outward as opposed to looking inward,” Jappe said.

Other Jewish student groups on campus disagree with the use of the word “apartheid.” Howie Stanger ’15, co-president of J Street U, voiced concern over the occupation of the West Bank, but said he does not believe that apartheid is the correct word to represent what’s happening.

“We do not agree with the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state; we see that statement as both inaccurate and incendiary, and believe it inhibits productive dialogue on this issue,” Stanger said.

Stanger also believes that alternative perspectives to such a controversial topic should be welcomed with open arms, but that such harsh language should not be used.

“A large majority of this school has grown up hearing very traditional pro-Israel, Zionist narrative (including myself), and SJP via Israel Apartheid Week is presenting an alternate narrative that directly challenges these narratives. I hope that we can figure out how to have a productive conversation in spite of these differences of opinion and ideology. Unfortunately, that has not necessarily been the case so far, both because of the polarizing nature of Israel Apartheid Week and the vitriolic reactions to it on Facebook and elsewhere from some members of the pro-Israel community,” Stanger said.

Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week will end on Friday, March 7 at 3 p.m.in the Peace Circle for a Peace Vigil for Palestinians in Yarmouk Refugee Camp.

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