Turkish students burn a Star of David (file)
Turkish students burn a Star of David (file)Reuters

It’s that time of year again. As Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) hits campuses across the globe, Jewish students are once more bracing for a week of demonization and assaults on the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Since launching in Canada ten years ago, the phenomenon has taken hold in campuses across several different countries, including the US and Britain. Based on the spurious, yet maliciously effective, accusation that Israel is in some way akin to apartheid South Africa, anti-Zionist groups have found the perfect way to monopolize the discourse and shut out any debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict. By hurling ad hominems such as “racism” and “apartheid”, they have fashioned a narrative that delegitimizes not only Israel but the very possibility of engaging in an intelligent debate.

This year, as I happened to be speaking at Birmingham University in England on the second day of IAW, I took the opportunity to ask some of the Jewish students about their experiences. Surprisingly, most seemed to be of the opinion that the phenomenon – whilst an ugly and often transparent front for anti-Semites to victimize Jewish students – was on the decline.

Izzy, a 20-year-old student, said that the fact that Israel is so vociferously singled out in the way it is belies the bigotry which stands behind the campaign.

“Inevitably, it makes Jewish students feel extremely uncomfortable. A lot of students understand that it’s just masked anti-Semitism,” she said.

In particular “it makes it very uncomfortable for people who have family in Israel …and know that what the (student) Palestinian Society are portraying is totally false.”

She added that many people “feel like even if they didn’t have a standpoint on Israel they’re still being targeted.”

But she also agreed with 19-year-old Carly, who said that compared to previous years the situation was “calming down a little bit.”

During previous “Israel Apartheid Weeks”, Birmingham’s “PalSoc” (Palestine Society) – one of the largest of its kind in the UK – had erected fake “checkpoints” to portray Israeli security measures as a sinister manifestation of racial segregation. Many Jewish students had felt directly targeted by the protestors at the time.

PalSoc’s current incarnation – Students for Justice for Palestine (PalSoc was closed down several years ago, apparently for a breach of university regulations) – had also been active in previous years; but this year appeared somewhat different.

My talk took place towards the end of Tuesday – and as of that point students told me the campaign had been at best a damp squib.

“On Monday nothing happened at all. Also in Birmingham City University – there was meant to be a big thing at the students union but in the end there was only one guy standing there,” Carly related.

One reason for that may be the proactive way student supporters of Israel have been countering IAW. A social media campaign centered on the hashtag #Rethink2014 has seen pro-Israel students taking to social media to express their opposition to IAW, and arguing against the demonization of the Jewish state.

Scores of students throughout Britain posted pictures of themselves holding signs explaining why they oppose Israel Apartheid Week as the counter-campaign has gone viral.

'Rethinking' Israel Apartheid Week Ari Soffer

Unable to build momentum on campus, anti-Israel activists also took to Facebook – “hiding behind their computer screens” as some of the students I spoke to put it.

But even in cyberspace, far from catching on, the university’s “Israel Apartheid Week” page was quickly inundated with Jewish students firing back at the hypocrisy and anti-Semitism which they say lies just beneath the surface.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the debate soon degenerated – one Jewish student who protested that the campaign made her feel uncomfortable received death threats, and other posts threatening her with rape.

That is not to say that no anti-Israel activities are planned. Thursday, for example, will see a panel featured anti-Israel activist Ben White, who gained notoriety in 2002 after penning an article in which he said that he “understood” why people hate Jews.

And Birmingham University’s Jewish Chaplain of 30 years, Rabbi Fishel Cohen, was more cautious and circumspect about the lull in anti-Israel activity.

Having witnessed the phenomenon since it first appeared on campuses, he says Israel Apartheid Week always “has a tremendous effect on Jewish students” – though in two very distinct ways.

On the one hand, some Jewish students “feel a certain insecurity, even embarrassment” to be associated with Israel in the face of such vociferous bullying.

He acknowledged that this year had been “less active than in previous years”, but suggested it could be related to the far more widespread instability in the Middle East, including most notably the Syrian civil war, which has simply eclipsed the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He also cautioned that the incessant campaigning by radical groups, coupled with the sympathy parts of the British media have shown towards their narrative, has meant that the toxic discourse which surrounds IAW is becoming “more mainstream”.

Yet on the other hand “for other Jewish students it strengthens their feelings towards Israel,” Rabbi Cohen continued. “They feel that Israel is being victimized and that there is therefore an imperative to stand up for Israel.”

Encouragingly, all of the students I spoke to about the issue fell firmly within that second camp. Far from cowing Jewish students into silence, Israel Apartheid Week is encouraging supporters of Israel on campus to stand up and be counted.

And if the students I met in Birmingham – as well as the #Rethink2014 pictures inundating my Facebook feed – are any indication, they are more than up to the task.