Wits tackles Israeli Apartheid Week

Demonstrators carrying anti-Israel placards gather on the library lawns of Wits University's east campus

Demonstrators carrying anti-Israel placards gather on the library lawns of Wits University's east campus

Published Mar 7, 2015


Two University of Witwatersrand students, Gabriella Blumberg and Shaeera Kalla, debate the Israel-Palestine conflict.


Rhetoric can’t erase facts that make a case for invoking international laws, writes Shaeera Kalla.

Israeli Apartheid Week is more than just about educating people, it is about getting people to act, to drive change, to take a stand on the right side of history.

The problem with the peace talks and with organisations that are satisfied with merely talking about solutions is that in the background Israel continues to commit heinous human rights abuses, continues to build illegal settlements, and continues to humiliate the indigenous Palestinians in their own land.

Anyone who is watching closely will see that building more illegal settlements makes it impossible for Palestinians ever to have their own state. What remains of Palestine – the Occupied Palestinian Territories – is fragmented by the apartheid wall that snakes its way across the land in a blatant attempt to occupy more land. One wonders how a Palestinian state would be viable.

The solution – a one-state or two-state plan – is not for us as South Africans to decide. Our role is to respond to Palestinian civil society’s calls, as made by the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, against the apartheid state of Israel, creating the necessary conditions for a just peace.

What makes apartheid Israel even worse and more callous than apartheid South Africa is that Israel remains a member state of the UN, despite repeatedly violating the UN’s laws on international human rights and UN resolutions limiting the occupation. Apartheid South Africa did not have the privileged protection that Israel enjoys from powerful states in the UN.

Israel has no intention whatsoever of finding a solution – perhaps some Israelis do, but the extreme-right-wing government that is in power has not focused on solutions.

Israeli Apartheid Week events seek to challenge this in creating an environment in which Israel’s human rights violations are aired. If we are to solve this issue we would need to know exactly what the root of the problem is. No one talks about solutions unless they recognise there is a problem.

The SA Union of Jewish Students’ counter-campaign, “Give Peace Wings”, is in effect legitimising Israeli Apartheid Week.

Attention must be focused on how the BDS movement successfully challenges Israel’s misrepresentation as a democracy.

The movement isn’t solely focused on economic boycotts. For example, world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott the Israeli president’s conference was unequivocally due to requests from Palestinian academics that he not attend. The comedy show at Wits this week featured all the Late Night News comedians who are boycotting Israel.

The apartheid government in South Africa was a white democracy, granting voting rights to minorities solely because their votes would not be able to change the political landscape in any way.

The same can be said for the “Jewish democracy” that is Israel. There is no true democracy when it is tailored to favour certain people by maintaining their power.

The inescapable fact is that millions of Palestinians are being denied their basic human rights. Saying this does not make me a terrorist, saying this does not make me an extremist, saying it does not make me anti-Semitic. It makes me a young South African who can think critically about an issue and make a reasonable judgment.

For too long we have allowed Israel to get away with murder, using the atrocities of the Holocaust as its justification. The oppressed has become the oppressor.

There is a stark similarity between the way Israel is behaving in the face of international pressure and the way that apartheid South Africa behaved in the 1980s.

The argument supporters of Israel often make is that boycotts, divestment and sanctions would be bad for Palestinians because those working in factories would lose their jobs. The same argument was used during the 1980s by the National Party in South Africa.

The view that Palestinians do not want peace and want the annihilation of Israel was also part of the rhetoric of the apartheid government: it said black people would destroy white people if they were ever given equal rights.

The irrelevant and outdated Hamas Charter from 1988 is used to paint Palestinians as terrorists, completely disregarding that in 2010 Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said that it was “a piece of history and no longer relevant”. The Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said Hamas would agree to accept a Palestinian state defined by the 1967 borders and to offer Israel a long-term truce.

It is time to implement international law against a state that continues to violate it with impunity.

This entire week we have heard nothing from the other side about the more than 2 000 Palestinians killed in 50 days last year.

The Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee has put up an installation on the library lawns depicting the number of children who died in Gaza: more than 400.

One simply cannot sweep under the carpet that more than 2 000 people died; that there are more than 5 million refugees, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East; that more than 590 Palestinian buildings were destroyed by Israel in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, last year, displacing 1 177 people, according to a study by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs; that more than 600 000 people, according to UN estimates, were left homeless by the attack on Gaza last year.

Israel is trying hard to silence the BDS movement. Instead of talking about the fundamental problem with the way that Israel exists, as a pariah state, it uses such rhetoric as: “Israel is not perfect, but it is not apartheid.”

What is even more disingenuous is the pedantic focus on supposedly finding a solution.

The counter-campaign by the SA Union of Jewish Students is just that. Israel’s government is sending soldiers to universities as salesmen for the country.

As students we are extremely disappointed and highly offended that the university would allow for the second time soldiers of the Israeli army onto our campus.

* Shareera Kalla is a Wits student and chairperson of Wits Palestine Solidarity



Gabriella Blumberg argues that disagreement may be fine, but silencing others is not.

It is a remarkable fact that rarely, if ever, have democratic countries gone to war with one another. This is because democracy, by its very nature, aims at resolving disputes by constructive dialogue and debate, in which all parties are allowed to bring their issues to the table. The South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) firmly believes that only through such a process can the Israeli-Palestinian dispute be resolved. Violence, far from bringing peace closer, results only in destruction, suffering and further polarisation.

What is true for Israel and Palestine, when it comes to confronting the myriad and complex issues of the conflict between them, is just as true for South Africans.

We should likewise be prepared to engage in honest, informed debate on these questions, regardless of where our particular loyalties might lie. Only when people have been exposed to all sides will they be able to arrive at informed conclusions.

This is the thinking that underpins the approach of SAUJS when it has come to organising Israel-related events on university campuses. Its campaigns seek to provide a reasoned alternative to the often emotive, heavily one-sided messages emanating from other quarters.

Just as importantly, they aim to promote informed discussion not only about the very real problems regarding the conflict in the Middle East, but also about how these might be resolved.

In this regard, university campuses provide - at least theoretically - an ideal environment in which information can be exchanged, and possible solutions explored.

Regrettably, SAUJS’s commitment to fostering dialogue is not shared by some of the radical anti-Israel groups on our campuses.

On the contrary, we are witnessing mounting instances of such lobbies not being content merely to propagate their own messages but to actively seek to prevent others from doing so.

A particularly egregious incident took place just a few days ago at the University of Johannesburg, when activists of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement forced their way into the venue where visiting Palestinian peace and human rights activist Bassim Eid was speaking, and made it impossible for the lecture to continue.

SAUJS had organised this event because it shares Eid’s vision of how peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians can be achieved.

BDS activists are free to disagree with him. What they did not have the right to do was to silence him.

Similar co-ordinated disruptions of SAUJS events by the BDS movement have taken place at Wits and the University of Cape Town, while at the Durban University of Technology the student leadership went so far as to demand that Jewish students, “especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle”, should be “de-registered” (that is, expelled).

All this begs the question as to why BDS is so bent on preventing any debate on the Israel-Palestine question. If it is so sure of its position, one would expect it to welcome public discussion on the issues involved.

It is a feature of totalitarian systems that unwelcome facts and unpopular opinions are ruthlessly suppressed, even – indeed, especially – when they happen to be true.

In other words, far from being a sign of strength, BDS’s tactics appear to be an admission of profound weakness on its part.

Despite the bullying and intimidatory tactics of the BDS movement and like-minded lobbies, SAUJS remains committed to promoting informed, civilised dialogue on the Middle East question.

No opinion is sacrosanct and everything is up for debate.

SAUJS believes that the solution to the Israel-Palestine question lies in peaceful negotiations aimed at the creation of a sovereign, democratic Palestinian state co-existing in peace alongside Israel.

To this end, we run programmes and bring out speakers that explore how this vision might be achieved.

We do not insist that others agree with us. What we do insist upon, however, is that our right to express such views be respected and protected, whether at our universities or in any other public forum.

* Gabriella Blumberg is a Wits student and SAUJS national media officer

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Saturday Star

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