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Israeli Apartheid Week Spreads to Laurentian University

University Censors IAW E-mails

by Angel

This year Sudbury was added to a growing list of cities showcasing Israeli Apartheid events.  The events were put on by small group of dedicated students and faculty came together after attending a rally in January 2009 put on by the Sudbury Against War and Occupation to denounce the massacre of Gaza civilians. They now form the Palestinian Solidarity Working Group (PSWG), the first group of its kind to facilitate educational campaigns about Palestinian realities.  

For Marwa Dimassi, a key organizer and activist within the PSWG, noted the most important part of organizing in Sudbury is to educate people that Israel is occupying Palestine; Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is a great way to do that.  

According to the IAW website, the event draws on the growing documentation of human rights abuses and "highlights the role that could be played by people and governments across the world in providing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by exerting urgent pressure on Israel to alter its current structure and practices as an apartheid state". 

In Sudbury, Dimassi stated that “people probably think that this issue is one of long-standing religious differences.  But once people understand that the conflict is actually a problem of colonization where one group is demolishing the other’s homes and occupying their land, then they can understand that this is a conflict that is 62 years old”.

In the lead up to IAW, the PSWG has put on film showings and talks. For PSWG, the most important of these was the talk “Eyes on Gaza” with Dr. Mads Gilbert in January of 2010.  This talk presented pictures and historical context to Dr. Gilbert’s experience as one of the few foreigners working in a Gaza hospital during the massacre.   

Dr. Gilbert’s presentation drew in approximately 250 people both from the University and the extended community.  For many in Sudbury this was the first time they had any knowledge of the extent to which disproportional force was used both historically and in this specific incident.  

Dimassi, a key organizer of the talk, felt incredibly inspired by how things had turned out.   

She stated that “many people said I’m happy that I understand what’s going on now".  That’s something that motivates her to keep going.  Dimassi conceded that "most of the people who come out are not ignorant people.  They have an excuse: whether they are getting their information from newspapers or TV, the media is omitting information and shielding people from what’s going on.”  

For this reason, when it came to IAW, the group chose to focus its activities on the occupation, Canadian roles in its perpetuation and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.  The week included both informal events such as the Palestinian film festival and a spoken word event featuring Rafeef Ziadah and more formal talks with local professors and guest speakers.  

Using the momentum from the week’s events the Sudbury Palestinian Working Group has begun to investigate the university’s investment portfolio and will be starting a BDS campaign if they find investments that are supporting Israel.  

But for all its success the group also faced difficulties in regards to an act of censorship that took place during the event’s promotion. An email that the group sent out and fit all posting requirements was initially sent out to the university community.  An hour later it was removed from people’s inboxes.   This was followed by an apology from the  Laurentian Communications Office  for sending out an announcement that the University recognized had “incendiary language” and might have offended some people. 

When a censored edit of the same message was sent out the editions seemed strange. 

Prior to IAW, the Ontario Legislature passed a unanimous motion condemning Israeli Apartheid Week stating that the use of the term apartheid was a gross exaggeration and disrespectful to those living under South African apartheid.  Peter Shurmann who introduced the motion stated: “The name is hateful, it is odious and that’s not how things should be in my Ontario. It’s a term that frankly I’m sick of hearing. Get rid of this word apartheid [the term] is close to hate speech.”  

It was expected that perhaps the censored version might omit the term apartheid.  Instead, apartheid appeared but this passage that described apartheid did not: “Palestinian life in the occupied territories and Israel includes separate roads, schools, neighbourhoods, identity cards and even separate Palestinian and Israeli license plates”.  It also took out quotations from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela that confirmed the links between South African and Israeli Apartheid.  

This was a revealing moment for those who sought to censor the announcement.   

Apartheid is a term that has been legally defined by the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.  Further, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela, and nobel peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu have all used the term to describe Israel.   

Closer to home, Michael Ignatieff wrote an article in The Guardian in 2002, in which he stated “I knew I was not looking down at a state or the beginnings of one, but at a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control”.   

It is unknown why Mr. Shurmann found the term loathsome.  If legally defined and the fitting the criteria, would it be possible that the term ‘apartheid’ could cut through the “complications” of the conflict and challenge the legitimacy of the ‘carte blanche’ approach that policy makers in Canada have taken?  Could recognizing apartheid in Israel reveal the asymmetry of the conflict or show that policy is incompatible with the human rights values Canadians seem to think they uphold?    

It is also unknown why the term 'apartheid' was less incendiary for the University than examples of well-documented conditions prevalent in Palestine that fit with the definition proposed by the UN or of well respected members of the international community agreeing with the definition given. 

Dimassi, one of the founding members of the Sudbury Palestinian Working Group and a key organizer of IAW thinks that this act of censorship probably affected attendance at the week’s event.  “How can people participate in an event when they don’t understand what the week is about, or what apartheid is?  On other campuses people have some background knowledge but here this is the first that people are hearing about it.”  

In addition to the censored email, Sudbury’s IAW event also had some posters torn down, while other posters around campus tried to deflect attention away from criticisms of Israel by pointing to Palestinian living conditions in refugee camps.   

But with growing networks that are being built globally, Dimassi hopes that her group will be able to draw on the experiences of other campuses and withstand attempts to distract from the key issues.    

For Dimassi, this year is only the beginning of a movement that has a long road ahead, but that she expects will continue to grow.  “This year our efforts were centered on the campus.  Next year it would definitely be great to involve the broader community.”  

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