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Jewish students shouldn’t cringe from IAW



The return to campus in 2022 for most students meant the resumption of the annual occurence that we hoped had been forgotten – Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). I recall two years ago being a first-year student. I walked onto the university campus terrified of what the week would bring. For the first time in my life, my identity as a Zionist Jew wouldn’t just be questioned but challenged.

I know I’m not alone. I still receive worried phone calls or messages from students the week of IAW, admitting that they’re fearful of coming onto campus because they are Jewish. Notice that this fear isn’t about their political position or opinion on Israel, it’s because they feel intimidated by a bully organisation like Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions that tries to silence them into complying.

I used to believe that Jewish students should ignore the week, keep our heads down, and get on with life – it would make my parents much happier if I spent more time in the library. But as we prepared for this year’s IAW, I realised that that kind of thinking is naïve.

If the week is going to go ahead, it’s imperative that Zionist Jewish students speak up.

You see, most students in South Africa have an ambivalent, uninformed, or slightly negative opinion of Israel. IAW is an opportunity for us to teach the campus – and by extension the country – about the story of our people. It’s also a chance to debunk or correct many preconceived notions, often predicated on lies told to students. This doesn’t have to be in terms of a fist fight but rather in terms of calm, rational discussion – how 90% of IAW occurs.

Furthermore, this is an opportunity for us as Zionist Jewish students to express with pride who we are. And why not be proud to be a Zionist? The state of Israel is nothing short of a modern-day miracle. Besides the countless wars she has survived and the state we have built in spite of living under constant threat of destruction, Israel is the most powerful story of decolonisation ever told.

No other people have successfully had their land colonised by other people and then have returned to it to re-establish their homeland with its historic language, culture, and people. That’s a story that should speak to us all in South Africa and is why we place so much emphasis on how Israel can help Africa – another positive message spread during this vitriolic week.

Would we rather the week didn’t happen? Absolutely. But does that mean we need to sit down and mope about it? Absolutely not. Part of the Jewish story has always been turning bad situations into an opportunity, and that’s why we must get involved in IAW.

  • Ben Atie is the national chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students.

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