Ten years of Israeli Apartheid Week at Oxford

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These days, it feels like an Oxford institution. Every year towards the end of Hilary term, lecture halls and rooms across the University’s colleges and departments fill with people at the arrival of Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Now entering its tenth year, organisers are hosting this anniversary with a commemorative poster featuring the names of past speakers. They include illustrious international authorities like UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights Professor John Dugard, world-renowned academics like Jacqueline Rose and Columbia’s Joseph Massad and vaunted figures in culture and the arts such as the leading Israeli poet Yithak Laor and the celebrated Syrian poet Kamal Abu Deeb. It has regularly brought together Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs, along with figures from across the world under a shared opposition to Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. Welcoming experts from such diverse fields to our university every year ensures that Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week has raised the nature, and the quality of debate. Above all, it has helped to bring a discussion of ongoing injustices, and much needed solutions to the conflict, to the heart of the University.

Its name evokes the struggle against South African apartheid, and has been endorsed by the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s anti-apartheid liberation movement. Keen to stress the connections between the anti-racist freedom struggles of the South African and Palestinian peoples, Oxford IAW has had the honour of hosting legends of the South African struggle to Oxford. Ronnie Kasrils, first the Head of Intelligence for the ANC at the height of the struggle against apartheid, and who went on to be a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government, is one past speaker. Last year, Exam Schools was filled with over 250 people as Oxford’s Sudhir Hazareesingh introduced Denis Goldberg, the South African freedom fighter tried alongside Mandela and, like him, imprisoned for decades. Like Kasrils, Goldberg spoke movingly about the parallels he sees between apartheid in South Africa and in Palestine. He echoed the Palestinian call for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, drawing a parallel with the successful sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa.

The internationally respected Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, who teaches at Oxford and is appearing at this year’s Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week commented: “Whereas ten years ago the word ‘apartheid’ was seen as controversial and provocative by some, today it is widely accepted as an accurate description of Israeli policies on the ground”. He explains how Israel’s claim to democratic virtues is fatally undermined by its military occupation of two million Palestinians in the West Bank, where only Jewish settlers have the legal right to vote and to live under a rule of law that protects their human and other rights. Another two million Palestinians in Gaza live under an Israeli siege which limits access to crucial food, electricity and medical supplies, and the millions of refugees living in forced exile outside of their homes in Palestine, denied their legal right to return. As Professor Jacqueline Rose reminded me, “the felt link between the injustice of apartheid and the continuing Israeli occupation in Palestine is real enough, and has been endorsed by figures such as Desmond Tutu, who described the situation in Palestine as worse than that in apartheid South Africa.”

Of course, Israel’s Gaza blockade and its West Bank mlitary occupation are both illegal under international law and have been condemned in decades of UN resolutions. Together, they form the most obvious manifestation of Israeli apartheid, the crime defined in international law as inhumane acts “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israel denies Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza the human rights it gives to Jewish West Bank settlers simply because of their ethnic origin; the child killed in an Israeli airstrike over Gaza or denied proper schooling in the West Bank is punished for no reason other than that she is Palestinian, all to maintain Israeli control over Palestinian lives. Inside Israel, more than 50 laws cement the institutional discrimination against Palestinians best symbolised by the Law of Return, which gives any Jew in the world the right to live in Israel, and the Absentee Property Law which forbids Palestinians expelled and dispossessed in 1948 from returning to exercise that same right. International law professors and UN human rights Rapporteurs John Dugard and Richard Falk,  along with the veterans of South Africa’s freedom fight have described these practices: Israel is an apartheid state.

Scholars and activists have taken the time to carefully establish that truth with a wealth of empirical evidence and publications. Ilan Pappe, perhaps Israel’s most prominent living historian, has participated in Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week since its inception, and described to me how universities have provided the place for much needed discussion and debate on Palestine.

The campaign for BDS has now become a global movement, and Israeli Apartheid Week has spread to cities across the world. Although Israel’s colonial occupation continues, the international opposition to it also continues to grow. Ilan Pappe highlights the critical role Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week has played in helping to introduce the “concept of apartheid Israel to the scholarly research agenda”. Avi Shlaim agrees; having also supported Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week since its earliest days, he is keen to point out the “high level of debate at its events, and its contribution to the intellectual life of the University”.

Academic contribution is important, but Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week does a great deal more. The dream of a free Palestine with equal rights for all its inhabitants remains unfulfilled. As Ilan Pappe explains, every year Oxford Israeli Apartheid Week “galvanises active solidarity with the Palestinians”, and that is surely its more important contribution. Its organisers, speakers and attendees have, he says, “kept the issue of Palestine alive in Oxford”.   

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