All quiet on the Israel Apartheid Week front

  • IAWWits
Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) in South Africa has been extraordinarily uneventful during the first half of this week. This is a fact on both the campuses of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of Cape Town (UCT), which are ordinarily hotbeds of confrontation and heckling.

Instead, IAW was defined this year by a pervading sense of calm and, in some cases, fun on the part of the pro-Israel side.

The South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) had set up its installation on the Wits west campus. Manned the whole day by committee members and representatives of the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, the space was geared towards engaging dialogue and healthy interaction. Lunchtime saw a different event each day, including guest addresses, Israeli cuisine tasting, and a unity concert.

Unusually, not a single event was disrupted by the opposition, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which in previous years had made a point of heckling speakers and engaging in confrontation with pro-Israel attendees.

Instead, the few identifiable anti-Israel students kept to the vicinity of their “wall” installation and hosted very low-key talks and film screenings.

Consequently, the mood among the supporters of Israel was one of elation.

“What we thought was an April Fools’ joke evolved into a fascinating observation about the two organisations responsible for IAW on campus, the PSC and PSF (Palestine Solidarity Forum), being virtually AWOL,” said Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “Their mangy attempts at their annual ‘wall’ raised questions about the future of this hateful week.

“The extraordinary IAW flop resulted in nothing short of a celebration of Israel by SAUJS students. For the past 12 years, I have spent IAW on Johannesburg campuses supporting our students and monitoring what has generally degenerated into ugly anti-Semitism, intimidation, and threats. It is no coincidence that the one year the PSC campaigns were negligible is the first year we have not had an anti-Semitic incident.”

The situation at UCT was much the same. “It is almost like there is zero presence of IAW on campus,” said Nathan Esra, SAUJS chairperson at UCT. “They only requested space for their stand on the plaza last week. They seem to be extremely disorganised.”

Although a “wall” was erected across the UCT campus plaza, only three PSF students stood by it on Wednesday afternoon.

When the SA Jewish Report asked why they were participating in IAW, their answers were vague and unsure. “The main thing is to raise awareness about what’s happening in Palestine… the killing... and oppression...” they said.

They could not provide specific examples. And when asked where “Palestine” is, they said it should be “everywhere”. Indeed, the back of their wall said, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The three students said they did not believe in a Jewish state. Asked whether Jewish students who are Zionists had a place on campus, one woman said, “I don’t want to answer that question.” She later added: “If you believe in someone else’s oppression, then no.”

They said they believed picking on Israel was fair, and it was a “deductive argument” that they should also be protesting against human rights violations in other countries.

Asked whether other students cared about the issue, they noted that the response had been quiet. “It’s almost 13:00 on a Wednesday – usually by now people are screaming at each other! I think with everything that has been happening on campus lately, students are exhausted. It’s a lot to carry on your back,” said one student.

In contrast, the SAUJS students on UCT campus appeared energised and enthusiastic. At a stand alongside the plaza, their posters said there was “no place for hate” on campus. Another section allowed students to hold up a sign saying they are Zionist and whatever other identity they choose – for example, “pro-peace”.

The absence of confrontation this year could be attributed to a number of issues, said Sara Gon, a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations. “There has been the backlash against UCT’s attempt to achieve an academic boycott of Israel. The UCT council has effectively kicked the issue aside to decide at a later date. The claims levelled at UCT made it look distinctly anti-Semitic and anti-freedom. As such, it also looks like a tertiary institution that has lost its academic rigour. Its reputation may be at stake.”

Add to this the indisputable fact that Hamas was responsible for starting the most recently witnessed military engagement (flying in the face of the false narrative broadcast for the past 15 years that somehow Israel had started every such engagement), and the dampened mood makes some sense.

“I believe all round a climate was created that left the BDS-niks feeling uncertain about their strategy,” said Gon. “All that those who usually support them but are really just along for the ride didn’t feel that supporting IAW was the thing to embark on.”


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