Israeli Apartheid Week Kicks Off

Divestment Sanctions, Academic Boycotts Slated

Photo Dan Halutz

Ending occupation in the Middle East is a process that has to begin at home, say the organizers of Montreal’s seventh annual Israeli Apartheid Week taking place this week.

Joining 50 cities worldwide, activists at Concordia, UQAM and McGill are calling for Canadian universities to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel under this year’s theme, “BDS on Campus: From Education to Action.”

“The focus of Israeli Apartheid Week this year will be to examine the ties between our academic institutions here in Montreal and academic institutions in Israel which are complicit in supporting the military occupation of Palestinian lands,” said Rana Salah, a Concordia undergraduate student and one of the organizers of IAW.

This year’s keynote speaker will be Ali Abunimah, the founding journalist behind the online news site Electronic Intifada, whose focus will be the growing international BDS movement. The international campaign began in 2005 and calls for a cultural, economic and academic boycott of Israel modeled after initiatives taken to end South African Apartheid.

While the cultural boycott has gained momentum over the past years with artists like Bjork, Elvis Costello, and the Pixies cancelling concerts in Israel, the academic boycott has been more controversial. The University of Johannesburg in South Africa is the only school to have officially set conditions around its relationship with an Israeli academic institution, Ben-Gurion University, in September of last year.

McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum is among those who condemn the academic boycott. In 2007 she stated, “[I]f you choose to isolate Israeli universities, you should add McGill to your boycott list. We will stand steadfast against those who seek to undermine academic freedom.”

“Some people see [the academic boycott] as an issue of academic freedom and free speech,” said UQAM sociology professor Rachad Antonius, a speaker at this year’s IAW. “But it is not about preventing ideas from being expressed. It aims at preventing formal academic links between institutions as a peaceful way of making known how universities [in Israel] are supporting the occupation in many ways, such as resource appropriation.”

McGill and Concordia both coordinate exchange programs, such as the Goldie and Joe Raymer Fellowship, joint research projects, and scholarships with the Israeli Institute of Technology, commonly referred to as Technion University.

The relationship has been a divisive one in the university community. Last year, a group of students, professors and staff from Concordia and McGill published a 13-page report outlining Technion’s links to military technologies and manufacturers and the punishment of dissent on the Israeli university’s campus.

“Not only is McGill complicit in the military-industrial complex on its own campus, but through its bilateral cooperation agreements with the Technion University [as well as Concordia University], [it] normalizes relations with, and helps reinforce the standing of an academic institution that directly and indirectly perpetuates the apartheid system of the Israeli state, and the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians,” the report states.

Apart from the focus on BDS, the schedule includes a talk by Clayton Thomas Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network and residential school survivor Audrey Redman, who will be drawing links between displacement in North America and Palestine.

“If you’re going to talk about colonial issues overseas, you have to look at issues in Canada,” said Salah. “A lot of Canadians have a hard time understanding the Middle East because they don’t understand Indigenous issues here. But they are the same kind of struggles for sovereignty and equality.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 25, published March 8, 2011.