Reflections on Israeli Apartheid Week: Zionists retreat, Islamophobic racism at UofT

One

So, as I described in my last post, on Wednesday February 6, Zionists set up a display about “Islamic State Apartheid” in Vari Hall at York. I was two hours late for class and felt too embarrassed to enter, although my professor John Saul is very cool (and was involved in the anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles in Southern Africa), so I hung out and took a look what was going on. As I noted earlier, the aim was to “trivialize the use of the word “apartheid” when associated with Israel.”

There was a large crowd of students gathered in front of the display — set up in the middle of Israeli Apartheid Week. A lot of Muslim students were angered. Other Palestine-solidarity activists were there, too. One could notice “circles of debate” where a Zionist was debating with someone else, and a sizable crowd would gather around. I noticed one pro-Israeli speaking lyrically to a group of about six or seven students about how Israel was founded by freedom fighters, fighting for self-determination. How Israel was a democracy. How there was no one to back Israel up, and how Golda Meir went around to Jewish organizations in the United States asking for money. How Israel was not a racist state. This, that, and the other.

I challenged his assertions, noting that Israel was supported in its founding by imperialist powers — hell, even the Soviet Union. (Especially through the United Nations. Most people have no idea what the composition of the UN looked like in 1948 — nothing like what it is today.) He didn’t know that. I asked him what two imperialist powers were key in support for the new state. He didn’t know. So I pointed out that it was Britain and France. I asked him if he knew what state the little Israeli state invaded in 1956. He didn’t know. He did know that there was a pre-emptive strike against Egypt — as if that’s not an illegal invasion (just like Iraq). I asked him if he knew what two imperialist powers were there side-by-side with Israel. He didn’t know that either. It was, of course, France and Britain (it wasn’t a trick question). Then I pointed out that, indeed, during and after the 1967 war America bumped up its support. (And it was in ’69 that Meir became Prime Minister.) I also pointed out that Israel was founded on the basis of the displacement and expulsion of the local population.

It was around this point that the faces of the people who were listening in were changing. They had already been critical of what the guy was saying, but now they saw that there were facts that he’d left out — that he didn’t know anything about. One of them wasn’t really critical of what the guy was saying, having come from Malaysia he was skeptical about Muslim states — or something. But even his face changed.

At some point the guy asked me if I believed Israel had a right to exist. I said, yes, Israel has a right to exist but not as a racially, ethnically or religiously pure state. That Israel had a right to exist only if it gave full and equal rights to all of its citizens and all of those people that are under its jurisdiction including those in the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian refugees whose right to return has been denied. At that point, of course, Israel would lose its touted “Jewish character.” I asked him if he agreed to that.

Interestingly, he agreed that Zionism is, in fact, racism, and that anyone who disagrees with the right of Palestinian refugees to return is a racist. However, he asked who would protect the Jewish minority in this new state from Palestinian retribution and violence. He felt that this state of affairs could only be plausible when the state-system is dismantled and there is a single world government. The problem of retribution and violence, of course, is what white South Africans were afraid of — but that didn’t really turn out to be the case, at all. And of course, the idea of this singular world government — nice — but really weird. The people who were listening to our mini-debate were not impressed, either. He left, with other Zionists. They — the people who had been listening to us — were happy I’d intervened.

What the experience showed me was that, at least at York, there were a sizable number of students who were critical of Israeli propaganda and propagandists, even if they weren’t quite sure what was up. There is also wider incredulity about Israel’s untouchability, its supposed status as some kind of beacon of hope and light to the world. The apartheid analysis is not marginal, and clearly Zionists everywhere are scrambling to try and cope with it and respond to it. Zionists, one of the speakers at Israeli Apartheid Week said, are on the defensive. The time has perhaps never been better — at least for my generation — for getting out proper information about the reality of the Israeli state and its apartheid practices.

Two

The next day, Thursday, I went downtown to chair an ASSU Council Meeting. Before that meeting, some members of the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), with which I’m associated, were tabling in Sidney Smith Hall. I said hi to them and went to the ASSU office. People came in and went out talking about racist posters that someone had posted up. I went to check them out and there, beside the SAIA table, were a whole series of posters on the bulletin boards:

Racist Wall
(Note, though, that the poster about The Israel Lobby was already there. Richard Seymour has a very interesting and good critique of the book and its arguments. Also, thanks to Sheila for taking the photograph.)

When I first saw the posters, I was not so flummoxed or annoyed. They were put up there by someone who is well known among Palestine solidarity activists at UofT as a particularly virulent and ignorant Zionist. I had seen her earlier in the year as she had a variety of signs — one talking about 72 virgins — as she opposed tabling by SAIA. In any case, by the time I saw the posters she was long gone.

What really annoyed me is when administrative staff from the Faculty of Arts & Science came to look at the posters in response to complaints from members of the ASSU Executive, SAIA and OPIRG-Toronto. One of them — Christine Elias, the Associate Director of Communications — looked at the posters and said something like, “Well, I can see how they’re offensive, but they’re not quite racism.” That really puzzled me and annoyed me, the nonchalance with which she could look at posters and ignorantly pass summary judgment about their presumed lack of racist character. I’m not sure what threshold would have to be reached for something to be genuinely racist for her. Animated, I started pointing out to her how, exactly, they were racist — pointing to my own beard to illustrate the point. “Sir, sir, your point is well-taken,” she said. I don’t think she understood a word I said.

(Note, also, that there are extremely few Christians in Darfur, certainly not millions. As far as I can tell they are largely unaffected by the crisis there. Too many ignoramuses conflate the conflict in Darfur with the conflict the Sudanese government had with the largely Christian and animist populations in the South. It doesn’t seem to enter their minds that conflicts can occur without any necessary racial or religious factor to undergird them, hence the desperate attempts to make the Darfur conflict one between “Arab” Sudanese and “black” Sudanese — who are both, incidentally, black — while ignoring the roots and the real bases of the conflict. It takes a stockbroker to get it: “The Darfur war has become ethnicised, but the root of it is a resource conflict between semi-nomadic herders and farmers.”)

As of yet I have heard not a word of condemnation or anything else from the university about these posters.

Three

Thursday night was the Israeli Apartheid Week event on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. The woman who had put up the posters, was in attendance and asked a leading question during the Q&A. She asked why tens of thousands of Arabs are applying to become citizens of Israel if, indeed, it is such a bad place (at 1:35). Her question was taken apart by Salim Vally (11:42-16:10):

Later, Faraz talks about the posters (38:00). This is when the woman claims responsibility for having put them up, and — incredibly enough — she asks why we think they’re anti-Arab. I suggest that she leave because we’re not tolerating racism in this forum. She gets “shamed” (39:04). The University of Toronto’s Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Officer, Nouman Ashraf (no relation), who has a penchant for handing out his business cards, was at the event. He said later that he was aware of the posters and that he’d spoken with that lady. But, as I’ve pointed out, no note from the university yet about the posters. Would they have waited so long if the posters were anti-Jewish and posted so blatantly in Sidney Smith?

In any case, it is evident that the Zionists are on retreat, and this is translating into a ratcheting up of Islamophobic and anti-Arab racism to deflect criticism away from the racist and apartheid practices of Israel. They fail to note that many of the people who are Palestine solidarity activists are also the ones who are active against poverty locally, who express solidarity with oppressed and marginalized communities around the world, and who also condemn heartily many of the Arab governments.

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4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    adnan. said,

    February 17, 2008 @ 4:47 am

    noaman, when you spoke, I could hear a tear roll down your cheeks.

    also, I was disappointed that you didn’t point the camera to yourself while you spoke. as I’m sure, other visitors to this site will be disappointed as well.

  2. 2

    adnan. said,

    February 17, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    I also like how the lady sitting beside Salim Valley is wearing a red kafiyyah to go with her red shirt.

  3. 3

    nomes » Race card said,

    February 19, 2008 @ 2:45 am

    [...] the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science looking at the cartoon and saying, “I can see how it’s offensive, but it’s not quite racism.”)   del.icio.us [...]

  4. 4

    Binish said,

    March 6, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    I was trying to do some reading before a meeting, when that girl put those posters up in Sid Smith.

    I told her not to. It wasn’t constructive. Her posters didn’t solve or address her anger, but instead, created more hate.

    I am shocked that the Universty took no action. Was an article on this incident put into the Varsity? Why not? Why can’t CTV or CBC cover this? Can this be reported to the Toronto police, because this kind of hate/racism creates an unsafe environment for the Arab/ or Muslim students on campus?

    I took pictures of this incident as well. I’m glad you’ve kept a written record of it.

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