Free speech is a pillar of our democracy. The right to speak your mind and your opinion, even loudly and callously (like the church-that-must-not-be-named that protests at military funerals) is sacrosanct.
Among the hateful speech that makes my blood boil are the words “Israel Apartheid Week,” a phenomenon that has swept across college campuses in North America in recent years. IAW is dedicated solely to demonizing and delegitimizing Israel; there is no other agenda. Calling for boycotts of Israel, constructing virtual “apartheid walls,” and holding “die-ins” are just some of the hallmarks of these week-long hate-fests of the Jewish state. Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and Zionism to Apartheid is just the beginning of the vitriol.
In an age when the tone of campus discourse has shifted sharply against Israel, what is the proper response? Over the years, the Jewish community has grappled with an appropriate way to respond.
Many Jews and Jewish organizations largely ignore them, instead focusing on strategic attempts to gain mainstream campus support for pro-Israel action. One US representative once told an AIPAC staffer that the only time he had seen college Democratic and Republican leaders agree on anything was when they made a joint pro-Israel resolution after an Apartheid Week. While this is certainly effective, at the same time, to not respond to these hellacious allegations only emboldens those who make them.
Other organizations seek to confront the Apartheid weeks with protests, which only brings additional press coverage and scrutiny of this fringe group, furthering their exposure and their broadcasting their hateful message to a broader audience.
So what should we do to counteract this hateful activity?
Enter “Israel Peace Week,” the brainchild of the Hasbara Fellowships. Seeking to shift the momentum and focus back to the pro-Israel voice on campus, IPW is taking to the quads of over fifty colleges and universities this spring, including local schools like Brandeis and Harvard, left-coast institutions like UCLA and UCSD, and others like Washington University, the University of Delaware, and Tulane.
Programming varies at each campus, but the all schools devote at least one day to highlighting Israel’s efforts for peace. One day or program focuses on threats Israel faces – from a nuclear Iran to terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah that ring Israel’s borders. Many schools are highlighting Israel’s accomplishments ‘beyond the conflict’- civil liberties and human rights; advancements in hi-tech and eco-innovation; and a commitment to ‘tikkun olam.’ In many instances these events are being co-sponsored by non-Jewish groups on campus with which pro-Israel student leaders have built strong relationships based on shared values. Student leaders have also reached out to campus media to widen their audience.
One of the more successful strategies of the anti-Israel side has been the constant repetition of patent falsehoods that people assume are true after hearing them so many times. I’m referring to gems like the occupation is the cause of terrorism, Zionism is racism, and Israel targets civilians. You’ve heard them before. You’ll hear them again. One of the powerful messages of Israel Peace Week is laying out three simple truths of their own, keeping the fundamental message as simple and straightforward as possible.
1. Israel wants peace and has demonstrated its willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace.
2. Israel does not currently have a partner for peace in the Palestinian and Arab leadership.
3. Israel is a model of democracy, human rights, and innovation, despite its neighborhood.
Play, rewind, repeat. Play, rewind, repeat. Hearing that over and over is way better than hearing the anti-Israel hate speech over and over.
Kol HaKavod to Israel Peace Week, the Hasbara Fellowships, the ADL, AIPAC, The David Project, and the other partner organizations for bringing this initiative to life. It will be nice seeing the pro-Israel voice grabbing the limelight on campus this spring, and even better if the program expands in the future.