Liron Velleman
Liron Velleman

The death of Israel Apartheid Week on UK campuses

Illustrative: A poster put up without permission in a London underground train on February 22, 2016, to mark the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement's 12th anti-Israel Apartheid Week.
Illustrative: A poster put up without permission in a London underground train on February 22, 2016, to mark the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement's 12th anti-Israel Apartheid Week.

This week, thousands of Jewish students are walking onto their university campuses to be greeted by… nothing. Well, nothing out of the ordinary, that is. Academics are teaching; students are studying. There are sports games, library visits, lunch breaks, submission deadlines, placements, supervisions, J-Soc socials… But that’s all.

Why is this noteworthy? Surely a regular week at university does not warrant a 500-word article. But this week is not like all other weeks.

It’s Israel Apartheid Week.

Since the campaign began in 2005, events have taken place on more than 20 campuses in the UK. In previous years these have been coordinated efforts designed to intimidate Jewish students and cause a commotion: for example, in 2012 a mock checkpoint and an ‘Israeli Apartheid Wall’ were erected at the London School of Economics, leading to physical confrontation.

In stark contrast, this year a scattered handful of speakers will address fewer than 10 universities across the country.

Clearly, Israel Apartheid Week is weakening.

It’s losing the momentum it gained a few years ago; it’s being dragged by tired, worn-out campaigners who can’t admit defeat.

The decline of Israel Apartheid Week mirrors a drop in the presence of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement on our campuses.

There is a historical association between BDS and anti-apartheid campaigning: boycotts were used effectively to end apartheid in South Africa over two decades ago. But the comparison doesn’t stack up; so neither does the tactic.

On campus, pro-BDS campaigns are a haven for those seeking to label Israel an ‘apartheid state.’ Whilst Israel Apartheid Week tactics intimidate Jewish students and others, cause nuisance and generally disturb university life, BDS is debated in students’ unions. The legitimacy of these respected forums can lend an (undeserved) air of respectability to what is actually an insidious, intimidating and alienating campaign.

And yet the BDS movement on campuses is slowly petering out too.

In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, 2014 saw a spike in the number of BDS policies proposed to students’ unions but with such policy typically being active for three years, many are now lapsing, and the lapses are largely going unchallenged.

In 2015, we witnessed Cokegate: eight of NUS’s 10 vice presidents and liberation officers boycotted their own awards ceremony due to sponsorship of the event from Coca Cola, which they perceived as a breach of NUS’ BDS policy, because of the brand’s factory in Bnei Brak.

In comparison, last year saw just seven pro-BDS motions to students’ unions — five of which were defeated, withdrawn or otherwise not passed — and six NUS officers visited Israel and Palestine on UJS-organised trips.

To be clear, BDS has not disappeared altogether. Jewish students fought at City University, London and UEA recently. They faced awful intimidation and abuse for doing so (a disturbing, but distinct topic); but these are the only two motions we have faced this academic year. This is a drastic drop from the seven we fought last year.

There are still battles to be fought — and we will continue to fight them. A handful of Israel Apartheid Week events is still too many, and Jewish students must be able to challenge BDS motions free from intimidation and abuse; so we still have a long way to go.

Year in, year out, anti-Israel campaigners graduate from university and new generations enroll. Those who have left in the last few years are taking the tactics of Israel Apartheid Week and BDS with them — good riddance — but we will not allow ourselves to become complacent. Whatever tactics new generations of anti-Israel activists might bring, Jewish students, with unwavering support from UJS, will be ready to challenge them.

About the Author
Liron Velleman is the Jewish Labour Movement Policy Officer and works for HOPE not hate as the Political Organiser. He is also a trustee of New North London Synagogue and a keen sports fan!
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