The 15th annual IAW continues largely unscathed by direct conflict as different student organisations campaign on campus. The annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at Wits University has passed peacefully since it started on Monday, April 4.
IAW is a global movement that started in Toronto in 2005 and campaigns for pro-Palestinian advocacy stemming from the dispute over land ownership between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. The week is run by a number of organisations, the most notable being the international boycott movement based in Palestine and called Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), which calls for non-violent disassociation from the Israeli state.
BDS initiated the annual program and because of international solidarity with IAW, each country runs the campaign differently. In South Africa, IAW is run by different organisations including the National Coalition 4 Palestine (NC4P) and BDS. At Wits University, IAW is organised by the Wits Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), the Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA) and a number of different organisations that advocate for the Palestinian state and run programs under IAW.
The South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) is a pro-Zionist organisation that participates and also runs programs during IAW by providing a counter-narrative to claims that Israel is an apartheid state.
“BDS runs a campaign every year called Israeli Apartheid Week on campus and our students don’t feel safe on campus. First and foremost we are running a campaign to provide a safe space for students, while at the same time educating about Israel so that people understand what’s really going on,” said national vice chair of the SAUJS, Kayla Ginsberg.
The two student bodies, the PSC and SAUJS, were physically separated 250 metres away from each other, preventing any immediate altercations.
Former Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) member Fasiha Hassan said PSC’S objective for the week was to lobby more students to participate in IAW by encouraging allegiance with BDS and engaging with the issue on campus.
“Ultimately we want more student organisations to take on the boycott stance [of BDS],” said the fifth-year LLM student.
Part of the PSC’s campaign included the erection of a mock wall at the Wits Science Stadium (WSS) to represent the Israeli border which separates Palestinians from the state of Israel.
Both SAUJS and PSC hosted a number of prominent speakers to lecture on their own experiences in relation to the two states.
Former member of the Wits SRC and candidate for the provincial legislature of Gauteng, Justice Nkomo, spoke at a SAUJS event about his new understanding about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on Monday, April 1.
Nkomo, who described himself as previously 100% pro-BDS, said: “I had a chance to go to Israel in 2014 with other student leaders … I had a chance to interact with community members that side, society in general both from Palestine and Israel, so I have a better understanding of the conflict.”
Badee Dwaik, a Palestinian activist and founder of Human Rights Defenders in Palestine, likened the Israeli occupation of Palestine to apartheid South Africa, on Tuesday, April 2 at the PSC activation on the WSS lawns.
“The situation for Palestinians is that they cannot have freedom of movement. I have been arrested and detained in Palestine more than 70 times for exposing the crimes of the Israeli occupation,” Dwaik said.
On Wednesday, April 3, the PSC held a painting session where students painted their hands in the colours of the Palestinian flag and pressed them to the mock wall.
The handprints accompanied spray-painted slogans reading “Free Palestine” and “End Israeli Apartheid”.
PSC chairperson Nonkululeko Mntambo said the atmosphere of IAW this year had been constructive but not without its unique challenges.
“We do believe that [Wits] management consistently gives SAUJS better space than we do and a better time than we do,” said Mntambo.
“SAUJS operates under the religious cluster so they don’t have to consistently see the Dean to have one event, but because we are explicitly a Palestinian political body, every single event, be it in IAW or in the middle of June, has to go through this body. It’s consistently easier to be a Zionist at Wits than it is to be pro-Palestine,” she said.
Since 2018, Wits management has stopped hosting the two organisations in the same space. SAUJS’s events for this week were hosted on the Amic Deck, while the PSC’s were held at the WSS rather than the FNB building, where they were last year.
SAUJS’s Liora Katzew said accusations of favouritism were false and that SAUJS had also had conflict with Wits management when planning campaigns.
“PSC chose FNB last year and never expressed any concern afterwards or doubt,” she said.
Wits Dean of Students Jerome September said he was surprised that the students felt they had been treated unfairly.
“I met with both groups to discuss the events and the terms of engagement for the IAW activities. I am thus surprised at the claim that we have been harsh on the students, when we are actively assisting all parties to ensure the success of the IAW.”