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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Planned ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ riles students online

Published: February 28, 2014
Section: Front Page, News

This Monday, a Facebook event titled “Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week” went viral. The event was created by Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine (BSJP) member Aya Abdelaziz ’16 and administered by several others. It came into existence with the purpose of being a headquarters for the titular series of events, which will begin next Monday and last the whole week. In the event’s description was a quote by the late Nelson Mandela and a list of the planned events. These functions include a keynote speech by controversial journalist Max Blumenthal, a seminar on the word “apartheid,” a film screening and a peace vigil for Palestinians killed in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

“[BSJP] created the event because we as a club felt isolated,” said BSJP members Guy Mika ’17 and Iona Feldman ’17 in an interview with The Hoot. “It seemed to us that the Palestinian narrative is always presented in the frame of Israel, which we believe unfairly silences the voices of Palestinians.”

Less than two days after the creation of the event, the Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week Facebook page exploded with comments, written by several pro-Israel Brandeis students who expressed anger and offense at the term “apartheid” being used to describe Israel.

“The term ‘apartheid’ is not only loaded, but also entirely false when it comes to life in Israel and Israeli policy,” wrote BIPAC president Daniel Koas ’16 in an email. “In fact, making such a claim about Israel belittles the actual apartheid that took place in South Africa.”

The event’s organizers and attendees were quick to respond, but tempers on both sides quickly flared. Accusations flew from both sides; the original commenters accused BSJP of unfairly targeting Israel in the face of human rights atrocities in Iran and North Korea, while BSJP accused the event’s detractors of attempting to silence the club.

This response from BSJP became the supporters of Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week’s rallying cry as the arguments continued. Many further responses took the angle of the event’s detractors attempting to intimidate students with differing opinions. “I strongly disagree with the ideas expressed by the event,” wrote Koas. He also assured in his email that he is supportive of all students’ rights to express themselves.

The comment situation began to spiral out of control with the arrival of several mysterious Facebook accounts, all unaffiliated with Brandeis, who began issuing personal insults and in some cases, violent threats towards Brandeis students. The organizers and supporters of the event began to defend themselves and became understandably frustrated in their language, though for almost the entirety of Feb. 25th, the assault went on.

The number of mysterious commenters eventually overtook the amount of criticism from actual Brandeis students, and nearly all requests for civility were completely ignored. But once a closer look was taken at these attacking accounts, several strange things popped up. At least five specific accounts were discovered to only have each other as Facebook friends, as well as a near complete lack of personal information, profile and cover photos or evidence of existing beyond a year.

Once this was seen by the event page’s administrators, most of these accounts’ comments were deleted from the page. Many of them had progressed to include virulent Islamophobia and profane insults against female students. Over time, the argument largely calmed down, though some accusations of anti-Semitism from from the larger SJP organization did remain. “It’s absolutely odious to call us anti-Semitic and to dismiss the voices of proud Jews such as myself who hold differing opinions,” Mika said. “Doing so claims the entirety of Judaism as belonging to one worldview.”

While it is true that as a university, Brandeis has no official connection to the state of Israel or Judaism, it is home to a student body that is 55 percent Jewish. BSJP is also the only club on campus whose activities relate specifically to Palestinian state autonomy, as opposed to the total of nine actively pro-Israel clubs at Brandeis. But Koas and other students are worried about issues beyond Brandeis walls.

“Israel Apartheid Week is also closely linked with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which aims to de-legitimize the State of Israel,” Koas wrote. “It seems that many who support this movement are fueled by hatred rather than a desire for understanding.”

Mika and Feldman, however, reject this as the motive behind Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week. “If the facts we are simply trying to present somehow delegitimizes Israel, that is not our fault,” said Mika. “[Iona and I] are coming from a place of compassion, as Jews and Brandeis students, for the voices of 11 million people currently living in the Palestinian territories … I think the extreme response on Facebook says more scary things about the national conversation [on Israel] than the atmosphere on campus.”

And though both sides agree that serious debate on the issues populating the Israeli-Arab conflict, they do disagree on how the conversation should occur. “By only providing [a BDS-tied] point of view, this event fails to provide a platform for all opinions to be heard,” wrote Koas. “By serving as a soapbox rather than an open stage for discussion, it is failing to live up to one of Brandeis’ core values, namely the promotion of vigorous debate and the chance for all opinions to be voiced.”

Nevertheless, BSJP has added things to the Facebook event’s description, including invitations to those with differing opinions to come and debate civilly in person. “It’s authoritarian, to say the least, that [BSJP] is anti-Semitic for criticizing a state; we are not trying to say that all Israelis or all Jews are evil because of the policies of the Israeli government,” added Feldman.

The furor on the Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week event page has largely halted, with very few comments still being made from either side. Max Blumenthal is still confirmed to open the event on Monday, March 3 in the Lown Ballroom at 8 p.m., and all Brandeis students are free to attend. Until then and after, the contentious issue of Israel and Palestine will presumably continue to be discussed and argued over at Brandeis, hopefully without such extreme virulence as seen this week.