For the SA Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) at Wits, this year’s instalment of the anti-Israel propaganda festival known as “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW) got off to a predictably rocky start. On arriving on Monday morning to set up our stands on the section of the Great Hall piazza allocated to SAUJS, as per agreement with the University, we were aggressively confronted by Palestinian Solidarity Committee members, who attempted to remove or tear down our displays and jostled, verbally abused and threatened our members. Nor have things improved since then, despite an agreement being reached to share the piazza in the course of extensive discussions between the respective organisations and the Wits administration. Amongst other blatant acts of interference, we have seen IAW activists cut the power cord to our sound system so as to prevent SAUJS’s speakers from making their presentations and invade our space en masse in flagrant violation of what was agreed to with the University. The display of the flag of Hezbollah, a known terrorist movement, further belied the claims of IAW to be campaigning on behalf of democracy and human rights.
Regrettably, such behaviour has become par for the course for IAW activists, whose mission is to portray Israel in the most damning light possible and who brook no opposition to their hard-line agenda. Both in South Africa and on university campuses abroad, IAW campaigns have been marked by bullying intolerance towards those who presume to present a different view on the Israel-Palestine question. This has been the case even when these do not seek to directly contradict what is being alleged but simply wish to discuss ways in which the conflict might be peacefully resolved. One has to ask, if IAW’s proponents are so very sure that they are in the right, why are they so anxious to shut down any meaningful dialogue on the issues? Universities, after all, are supposed to be spaces where complex international disputes of this nature can and should be rigorously debated.
In mounting its own campaigns in response to IAW, SAUJS has adopted a diametrically opposite approach to the “demonise and boycott” strategy of the other side. It has also firmly resisted the temptation to respond in kind to the abuse and intimidation that its members are being subjected to. The theme of this year’s SAUJS campaign is “See Israel For Yourself” which, as that name indicates, urges people to learn, ask questions and come to their own conclusions, rather than being asked to simply accept a particular interpretation that is being presented to them. This does not mean, of course, that SAUJS is laying out a purely neutral set of facts and opinions, without having its own underlying viewpoint. SAUJS does have a viewpoint, one that we believe is broadly shared by South Africans across the board, and that is that the ultimate goal for Israelis and Palestinians is to co-exist in peace with one another. Its response to IAW is to explore the various ways in which this might be achieved.
Despite the inevitable tension and unpleasantness surrounding this week, it has been encouraging to see how many Wits students have been prepared to engage with us, ask questions and share their views. There is a genuine desire to learn more about Israel and Israeli society, including very much the complex questions concerning its relationship with its neighbours and how to finally resolve the long-standing conflict with them. By and large, the average student without any particular ideological axe to grind would rather come to his or her own conclusions rather than being told what they are supposed to believe.
To assist SAUJS in promoting this message of peace and tolerance, six Israeli students from widely differing backgrounds have come out to South Africa, and have been very much part of its on-campus activities. Through them, Wits students have been given an opportunity of meeting face to face with their Israeli counterparts, and learning at first-hand how they see their country, their hopes and aspirations and their shared commitment to working together for a better and peaceful future. One of the most inspiring speeches was given by Yahya Mahamed, and Arab-Israeli member of the group, who spoke eloquently on the power of tolerance, empathy and mutual respect to overcome even the most engrained prejudices and how peace for Israelis, Palestinians and indeed all of the peoples in the region is possible.
It is through this kind of constructive, respectful engagement, as opposed to the hate-filled and destructive tactics adopted by IAW, that we will hopefully see prevail in the Middle East.
For its own part, SAUJS will continue to embrace civilised intellectual debate and education on our university campuses, no matter how much the PSC and its fellow travellers persist in flouting those values.