March 10, 2011
By Catherine Chatterley
Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), which begins on March 7, is a Canadian invention.
The first event was held at the University of Toronto in 2005. The following year, it included Montreal and Oxford. In 2007, it grew to eight cities; in 2008, to 24 cities; in 2009, to 38 cities; last year, to over 40 cities. This year, IAW will be held in over 55 cities worldwide.
While the event is new, the ideology at the heart of IAW is not. The accusation that Zionism is racist and imperialist by nature is as old as Israel. The Soviet Union was a leading proponent of this conception of Zionism; and it drew on the long history of leftist antisemitism, identifying Jewish nationalism and capitalist imperialism with Judaism and the Jewish bourgeoisie.
Within a year of Israel’s establishment, Stalin began to see Zionism as a serious threat to the Soviet Union. Zionism was perceived to be working in tandem with American imperialism, both in the Middle East and as a conspiracy inside the U.S.S.R.. From 1949 until his death in 1953, Stalin engaged in a full assault on the Jews of the Soviet Union, who were then considered “bourgeois nationalists” and a Zionist fifth column.
Following the Six-Day-War in 1967, Soviet anti-Zionist rhetoric regularly used Nazi analogies, accusing Israel of behaving like Hitler. In a re-deployment of classic European antisemitic tropes, the Zionists were claimed to have a controlling influence in the Western media, industry and banking.
In his most recent history of anti-Semitism, entitled A Lethal Obsession, Robert Wistrich illustrates how the Soviet strategy to isolate and delegitimize Zionism precipitated UN Resolution 3379 in 1975, which stated that “Zionism is a form of racism and racist discrimination.” Two years earlier, UN Resolution 3151 had condemned “the unholy alliance between South African racism and Zionism.”
UN Resolution 3379 was annulled in 1991, the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed, but its echoes were heard again at Durban I, the World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 under UN auspices. Charged with discussing a number of controversial subjects including slavery and reparations, much of the conference was dedicated to the so-called racist crimes of Zionism. Iran and Syria inserted six references to Zionism as a form of racism into the draft documents produced before the official conference (which were eventually removed). The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was distributed to delegates by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee of South Africa.
Four years after Durban I, in 2005, Israeli Apartheid Week was born in Toronto. That July, 170 Palestinian civil-society organizations released an official call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (better known as BDS) against Israel. The document clearly stated that the call was modelled on the example of the South African struggle against Apartheid.
Those of us who attended university in the late 1980s and early 1990s know how powerful and effective the anti-apartheid movement, including its calls for divestment and boycotts, was on Canadian campuses. By 1983, the United Nations had twice condemned South Africa at the World Conference Against Racism, and a significant movement was pressuring investors to disinvest from South Africa. By the end of the 1980s, 25 countries, including the United States, Canada and the U.K., had passed laws placing trade sanctions on South Africa.
This is the model chosen by pro-Palestinian activists today to dismantle so-called “Zionist racism” in the Middle East. By framing Israel as a racist apartheid state, BDS is presented as an entirely appropriate and morally correct plan of action. If Israel can be characterized as the new South Africa, it will have fewer and fewer supporters. This is precisely the stated purpose of IAW: to “contribute to [the] chorus of international opposition to Israeli apartheid and to bolster support for the BDS campaign in accordance with the demands outlined in the July 2005 statement.”
If the goal were actual education and informed discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict, IAW programming would incorporate competing points of view. All subjects central to the conflict would be on the agenda — such as the many wars fought by Arab armies against Israel, the historical and contemporary arguments of Arab nationalism, the Islamization of the conflict itself, and, the very real question of whether anyone in the region actually wants to accept the existence of a Jewish State.
As with the original anti-apartheid movement, the goal of IAW is explicitly political. And yet the rhetoric of IAW is left open enough to incorporate: (1) critics of Israel who still support a two-state solution; (2) those who support the dismantling of the current Jewish State and its replacement with a single (highly theoretical) secular democratic state; and (3) those who support the destruction of Israel by any means necessary. All three camps are included amongst supporters of IAW and the BDS campaign, and therefore the lines are often blurred between harsh criticism of the state of Israel, outright condemnation of its continued existence, and calls for its eradication. This is a serious problem, and one that appears to be designed quite consciously by IAW and the BDS movement.
As with the protest movement against South Africa, we have the creation of a polarized, Manichean context between evil, racist Israel (and its supporters) and the rest of humanity. The difference, of course, is that South African apartheid actually was a vicious white-supremacist ideology that had no supporters on university campuses. Today, students on campuses are learning about Zionism and Israel — and thereby also about the Jewish people — from events sponsored by an organization that conceives of them as racist and imperialist.
Another theme at work here, which some people may not recognize, is the classic antisemitic opposition between “the Jews” and common humanity. In the antisemitic imagination, “the Jews” conspire against the interests of common humanity, against all that is good and just, for their own selfish, particularistic interests. The demonization of Zionism replicates this exact dynamic and places Zionists outside the boundaries of humanity, just as Jews were placed outside Christian humanity, proletarian humanity and so-called “Aryan” humanity over the centuries.
What we need, in response, is high-quality academic programming on university campuses that both unpacks and counters Israel Apartheid propaganda, and that actually engages with the difficult reality of the conflict. I would suggest that it is fundamentally irresponsible to allow IAW and its supporters to re-define Zionism as a racist form of European colonialism when in actual fact it is an emancipatory movement for Jewish self-determination — one that developed a new urgency and legitimacy with the wholesale systematic annihilation of Jewish Europe by a real form of racist European imperialism, better known as National Socialism.
Dr. Catherine Chatterley is founding director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA), a registered charitable organization that relies on public donations. This article is adapted from Dr. Chatterley’s presentation at a Feb. 16 conference in Toronto entitled When Middle East Politics Invade Campus, sponsored by the Advocates for Civil Liberties. Audio of the presentation is available on CISA’s blog. Please visit Can-isa.com for more information.