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Seventh annual Israeli Apartheid Week comes to McGill

Alice Walker

Israeli Apartheid Week­­—a week-long series of events designed to raise awareness of alleged Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians—highlights the ongoing debate around the world concerning the birth of the Israeli state, as it did at McGill this past week.  

Israeli Apartheid Week is praised for its promotion of open-forum dialogue by some and condemned by those who believe it is anti-Semitic. This week’s events in Montreal elicited similar controversy.

Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah delivered the keynote address on Wednesday evening at the Bronfman Building. His talk, which was organized by Israeli Apartheid Week Montreal in conjunction with QPIRG McGill and Concordia, was designed to draw attention to policies Israel has imposed on Palestinians, which he called racist.  

“Israel is very, very committed to a one-state solution, but the only problem with Israel’s one-state solution is that it is an apartheid state,” Abunimah said.

Abunimah argued that Israel was limiting opportunities and rights to Palestinians based simply on their ethnicity, and covering up these abuses by either denying them or denouncing critics as “anti-Semites.”

“If Israel placed a different arbitrary restriction [on Palestinians] … and said you can’t come back because of your skin colour, then nobody would deny that this is apartheid,” he said.  

Aaron Lakoff, the event coordinator and a Concordia student, said the lecture was in keeping with Israeli Apartheid Week’s goals, which he described as “to foster education and debate on campuses.”

Lakoff added: “The issue [raised by Israeli Apartheid Week] is important for two reasons, the first being the magnitude of the situation. The war in Gaza in 2009 showed that Israel was strong and brutal enough to kill thousands of civilians. The second reason is because Canada is one of the biggest supporters of Israeli apartheid.”

Regarding the charges of some, notably Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who recently described Israeli Apartheid Week as anti-Semitic. Lakoff responded that he sees a distinction between Judaism as a religion and the state of Israel.

“I myself as a Jew am incensed that Israel claims a right to speak for Jews around the world,” Lakoff said. “There is discord within the Jewish community and there is no consensus around Israel.”

Victoria Shore, a U3 humanistic  sudies major and president of Hillel McGill, a campus Jewish group, called Israeli Apartheid Week “divisive.” Responding to Abunimah’s lecture, she said, “University students are smart; if they do some reading, they will easily find that Israel is a fully functioning democracy, the only one, in fact, in the Middle East.”

“The week does not achieve dialogue about Palestinian human rights,” she added. “It only provides a negative environment for all students on campus. It creates a divisive and hostile atmosphere. University is meant to be a place that provides a positive learning environment, where issues can be discussed in an open forum, meant to provide real solutions to problems; this week is a platform for hate speech and intimidation.”

While McGill students debated, the same argument was echoed at a national level this week. The rector of Queen’s University, Nick Day, wrote an open letter to Ignatieff on news blog Rabble.ca to in favour of Israeli Apartheid Week, citing the Liberal leader’s “deep lack of intellectual integrity.” Day did not claim to be writing on behalf of students, but the letter makes reference to his elected position, and he signed the letter as “Rector.”  

Believing that this was an inappropriate use of his position, 2,200 students petitioned to have the Queen’s Alma Mater Society Assembly consider it at last Thursday’s meeting.  The Assembly voted unanimously to put the question of whether Day should be impeached to referendum. 

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