Penn Students for Justice in Palestine is hosting “Israeli Apartheid Week” for the second time on campus after receiving some backlash for the events last year.
This week’s events will take place April 17-20. Originally meant to be hosted a week earlier, the event was pushed back in order to avoid conflicting with Passover. SJP will also be collaborating with Penn Association for Gender Equity for the “Freedom of Movement” event on April 19.
The University of Toronto hosted the first “Israeli Apartheid Week” in 2005, and since then, it has been usually held on university campuses in February or March by SJP chapters.
Rashad, a College senior who asked to withhold his last name due to fear of retaliation for his views, said the week attempts to raise awareness and advocate for the rights of Palestinian people living in Israel proper, the Gaza Strip and particularly those living in the West Bank.
“What we’re asking is for people to talk about and for people to recognize that a certain group of people is being constantly denied human rights,” Rashad said. “That’s not a very political thing.”
Rashad cited examples of retaliation for similarly held views. He said certain organizations compile “blacklists” or databases of individuals they deem anti-Semitic. These databases include public profiles with names, photographs and other personal information, including a person’s close connections. Israel also passed a law barring entry to foreigners who have publicly supported the controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
A College upperclassman, who requested to remain anonymous also due to fears of retaliation, hopes this week will educate students on the political and social situation in the region, which the student said is not adequately covered by major news outlets. The student, who is Jewish, has volunteered in the West Bank and is a member of a “leftist activist group.”
“You don’t hear about the home demolitions that occur,” the upperclassman said. “Every village in the West Bank is under the threat of demolition. One village that I worked in had demolitions recently that left families homeless.”
Some members of the Penn community have labeled the event and group as anti-Semitic since its inception. A 2016 guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian criticized the “undeniable and prevalent anti-Semitic attitudes displayed by many members of SJP.”
However, Rashad said that both Penn SJP and the event are unrelated to religion.
“We make it very clear that we’re anti-Zionism, which is the political ideology of an ethnocentric ... State of Israel,” Rashad said. “We separate that from Judaism. We actually have members who are Jewish.”
The College upperclassman said it was “absurd” that the term “apartheid” could not be used without garnering backlash from pro-Israeli student groups.
“How am I supposed to describe what I’ve seen if I can’t use a certain term because it’s offensive?” the student said. “There is no current term that exists that comes close to what you see there. I don’t think these students have actually seen what it looks like firsthand.”
Rashad added that the term was used in the context of international human rights laws.
“We are really sticking to the topic of the crime of apartheid, which is different than apartheid South Africa,” Rashad said. “We’re not saying it’s the same exact situation, but you can see that some of these things happen.”
Penn Hillel Israel Sector Chair and College junior Hannah Jaffe said the Israel Sector of Hillel does not support the event’s depiction of the history of the region.
“In general, Israel Sector’s opinion on it is that we don’t agree with this oversimplification of the events and history that Israel Apartheid week promotes,” Jaffe said in an emailed statement to the DP.
College and Wharton senior and member of SJP Aimee Knaus said that SJP’s first event of the week aims to explain to students why they chose the word “apartheid,” in order to start a dialogue with students who have different views than the SJP regarding the current situation in the region.
“It’s called ‘Solidarity in the Face of Apartheid’,” Knaus said. “My hope is that people who really don’t like the use of that word will come to the event and engage in conversation with us.”
Having received backlash for the event last year, Rashad said he expects the same this year from groups like the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee. PIPAC declined to provide an on-the-record comment, but a member of the group, who asked that their title and name not be given, provided a link to an article from the Anti-Defamation League, titled “Response To Common Inaccuracy: Israel is an Apartheid State.”
“There is no Israeli ideology, policy or plan to segregate, persecute or mistreat the Arab population,” the article reads. “Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the full range of civil and political rights.”
“Palestinians in the West Bank and in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip do encounter hardships as a result of Israeli policies, including checkpoints, access into Israel, the security barrier and other issues,” the article continues. “However, these procedures and structures have been developed to promote security and thwart potential terrorist action, not to persecute or segregate.”
The article goes on to condemn campaigns that “demonize” or “bash” Israel rather than “advocate constructive initiatives.”
Knaus said that moving forward from the week SJP is aiming to spread awareness of its message within the student community at Penn.
“The objectives are always just to grow within the constituents in our group but also within the people who are interested in hearing our message,” Knaus said. “My hope is after this week more people know what Students for Justice in Palestine is and what our mission actually is.”
The College upperclassman also said the events aim to highlight the greater historical context of issues in the region.
“The issue that we see right now in this conflict is that you cannot point to recent history to explain what’s going on. I think that [the event] provides students with a way to get closer to the larger history,” the student said. “I do think that this provides an avenue for students to actually learn about the conditions that create what we see in the news.”