This week, students at two major New York City college campuses experienced firsthand the complex challenges and triumphs of the Middle East’s only democratic state. Both pro and anti-Israel organizations at Columbia and New York University (NYU) organized events and demonstrations for Israel Peace Week and Israel Apartheid Week, respectively.
Wednesday evening, the Chabad House on Bowery (which serves NYU’s campus) was abuzz as hundreds of students and community members gathered for Innovation Israel, an event which enabled them to experience Israel’s commitment to improving the world firsthand. Among the exhibitors present at the interactive showcase were companies which exemplify Israel’s commitment to human rights and social justice, such as Hatzolah, an international volunteer ambulance service, and Innovation Africa, which works to bring Israeli innovation to African villages. The event was organized by TorchPAC (NYU’s Pro-Israel advocacy organization), was primarily funded by the organization Israel Ideas, and was co-sponsored by TAMID at NYU along with a variety of student business and social organizations. In the words of Wenbo Wang, NYU sophomore and President of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, “This event gave me a glimpse into the Israeli high tech industry and it really opened my eyes to what Israel has to offer. The event was great and I hope there will be other opportunities in the future to learn more about Israeli Industries.”
In stark contrast, Anti-Israel groups at both universities took part in “Israel Apartheid Week,” an annual event designed to “educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.” Demonstrations at both campuses included an “apartheid wall” to represent the struggle of the Palestinians, adorned with “facts” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held anti-Israel events during the week designed to draw support from parts of the student community not typically involved in anti-Israel advocacy. As one SJP member recounted on behalf of the organization, “We’re really happy with the turnout and enthusiasm students have shown for [Israel Apartheid Week] this year. It is becoming clear that the tide on campus is shifting. Until all people in Israel/Palestine, both Jewish Israeli, Palestinian and other, have equal social, political and economic rights from the river to the sea NYU SJP will continue its educational and organizational efforts.”
As a part of their efforts year-round, SJP chapters posit that justice will come by way of boycotting the state of Israel. As representatives of SJP at NYU put it, “IAW doesn’t simply highlight injustice, but offers people with moral concerns about Israel’s racist practices a way to get involved, by contributing to the nonviolent struggle Palestinians are leading through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.”
Unfortunately, these efforts may be counterproductive. As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “The BDS movement is immoral because it would hurt the wrong people: it would hurt Palestinian workers who will lose their jobs if economic sanctions are directed against firms that employ them. It would hurt artists and academics, many of whom are the strongest voices for peace and an end to the occupation. It would hurt those suffering from illnesses all around the world who would be helped by Israeli medicine and the collaboration between Israeli scientists and other scientists. It would hurt the high tech industry around the world because Israel contributes disproportionately to the development of such life enhancing technology.”
Advocates for BDS also seem to exhibit some degree of historical amnesia about the causes of the continued occupation and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Professor Dershowitz continues, “The BDS movement immorally imposes the entire blame for the continuing Israeli occupation and settlement policy on the Israelis. It refuses to acknowledge the historical reality that on at least three occasions, Israel offered to end the occupation and on all three occasions, the Palestinian leadership, supported by its people, refused to accept these offers.”
While thoughtful criticism of both Israel and the Palestinian government is vital to strengthening prospects for peace in the region, groups involved in Israel Apartheid Week often refuse to dialogue with groups who are Pro-Israel or recognize any legitimacy to the Zionist narrative. As representatives of SJP at NYU elaborated to me, “NYU Students for Justice in Palestine is open to speaking to any individuals [sic], regardless of their stance on Israel/Palestine. That being said, as an organization we refuse to co-host events, or enter into official dialogues with Zionist groups [sic] on campus because we consider this normalization of the Israeli occupation. Entering into debates with Zionist organizations falsely depicts the colonization and occupation of Palestinian land as a two-sided ‘conflict’ in which both parties are at fault.”
SJP and other groups seemed to gain the most traction on campus by drawing parallels between the narratives of other cultural groups or social movements in order to engender feelings of shared struggle: at NYU, an event entitled “From Ferguson to Palestine: The Parallels of Oppression” sought to show that “from police brutality to an unfair ‘justice’ system, Palestinians and African-Americans share similar struggles.”
At Columbia University, after Pro-Israel students printed flyers which featured a quote from prolific civil rights activist and ardent Zionist Martin Luther King Jr, the Black Students Organization issued a statement condemning Aryeh (Columbia’s Pro-Israel advocacy group) for “us[ing] the image and words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in favor of their Zionist views,” and expressed their support for “the people of Palestine in their fight for freedom from Israeli apartheid.”
Despite the prevalent use of the term “Israeli apartheid” by Israel’s detractors, under closer scrutiny, the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa doesn’t seem to hold much legitimacy. As Columbia undergraduate student Jonathan Deluty noted, “There were no black political parties in South Africa as there are Arab parties in Israel. There were no black Supreme Court justices as there is an Arab Supreme Court justice in Israel. The ubiquitous sight in Israeli hospitals and health clinics of Arab and Jewish doctors working side by side to help Jewish, Arab, or any other patients is anathema to everything apartheid was. To consciously use the term to describe Israel is both a slander against a non-apartheid country and trivialization of the real apartheid black South Africans went through.”
To directly counter SJP’s demonstrations, many NYU students gathered across the street from their display, bearing Pro-Israel signs and Israeli flags and sharing the message of a peaceful Israel to those who passed by. As Yaniv Hoffman, NYU student and one of the demonstration’s organizers explained, “We’re out there for two main reasons. One is to help educate people that there is another side, a side that represents the truth about Israel, and two is to let the Jewish student community and supporters of Israel know that we will not be bullied and that we will stand tall and strong against those who seek to spread lies and hatred.”
As the week draws to a close, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perhaps no closer to reaching a resolution, but future leaders at both campuses are reflecting on the week as a passionate and educational one for all involved.