A microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached the Georgetown campus this week as the Georgetown branch of Students for Justice in Palestine hosted events for Israeli Apartheid Week.
The week, which is taking place this year at universities in over 55 cities and 19 countries, includes events that protest the Israeli occupation of Gaza and support the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement. According to the event’s Facebook, the week is meant “to spark reflection on the injustices inflicted upon Palestinians, raise awareness about the historical and ongoing causes of injustice and promote dialogue about these issues in a respectful … manner.”
The week included a Monday screening of “Roadmap to Apartheid,” a documentary film produced by a Jewish Israeli and a white South African. Students participated in a protest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech to the United States Congress. Wednesday featured a screening of “The Promise,” a film series that compares current Israel to 1940s Palestine.
“I’m excited about Wednesday’s event because I think something that often gets overlooked is the historical reality of the issue,” SJP President Leila Shebaro (SFS ’15) said. “I think it helps to frame the modern Israeli state, the Zionist project, the Palestinian experience, all of it, in the context of the different structural controls that have existed since the opening of the century, and I think it helps people understand where Palestinians are coming from.”
On Thursday, the group hosted a discussion about the BDS movement, which advocates for the boycott of and divestment from Israeli businesses, cultural and academic institutions and sanctions on the Israeli government.
SJP contends that Israel is an apartheid state discriminates against Palestinians by limiting civil rights, restricting access to roads and water and demolishing homes. The organization constructed a wall representing the Israeli West Bank Barrier in the Intercultural Center Galleria.
“We mean a lot more than the wall,” Shebaro said. “There are a lot of structural aspects of Israeli policies and institutions that are even more the reality of apartheid than the wall itself.”
Due to its national policy of anti-normalization, SJP does not collaborate or co-sponsor events with any campus group that supports Israel.
“The policy of anti-normalization is that we’ll only engage with organizations that essentially come at the situation recognizing explicitly that Israel is an occupying state and that occupation is the cause of the conflict and the violence,” Shebaro said. “We’re not going to work with an organization that is not committed to justice for all people including Palestinians.”
In response to this policy, student groups including the Georgetown Israel Alliance and J Street U Georgetown hosted their own events to share varying perspectives.
GIA created a discussion table in the ICC on Thursday to speak to students with questions about Israeli Apartheid Week. GIA President Harper Weissburg (SFS ’17) said that she would have liked to work with SJP to encourage discussion.
“We are not in a position to co-sponsor with SJP, which kills us,” Weissburg said. “We’d love to have that discussion, but because of this [anti-normalization] policy that is not in the cards.”
GIA disagrees with SJP’s claim that Israel is an apartheid state and adamantly opposes BDS.
“Israel is not an apartheid state, blanket statement,” Weissburg said. “It is a misrepresentation of the horrific apartheid in South Africa and although GIA is first to admit that Israel, like all states, is not a perfect state and yes, racism exists in Israel as it exists in all states, apartheid is the de jure institutionalization of racism, the creation of a second-class citizenry if you will. And that is not the case in Israel.”
Also due to its anti-normalization policy, SJP has refused to work with J Street U, although the organization does acknowledge Palestinian oppression and Israeli human rights violations.
“We get a lot of questions about why we don’t work with J Street in particular, because they are the more moderate organization,” Shebaro said. “I think my problem, and the institutional problem with J Street, is that they have a tendency to portray the treatment of Palestinians … as unfortunate necessities or consequences of [Palestinians] being violent or [Israelis] being provoked.”
J Street U Co-President Natalie Magioncalda (COL ’16) said that the organization opposes BDS but wants to encourage an open dialogue.
“J Street unequivocally opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement,” Magioncalda said. “We are open to open dialogue around BDS, but we don’t support BDS, because we feel that illustrates the conflict in black-and-white terms.”
Co-President Molly Wartenberg (SFS ’16) agreed with Magioncalda and added that she does not think BDS proposes any viable solution.
“Instead of trying to sit down and have those conversations with people on the other side … it is saying let’s reject Israel, let’s reject their institutions, let’s reject their industries and in doing this, draw attention to it. I think the only way to move forward is to have more conversations between people,” Wartenberg said.
J Street hosted its own discussion on Wednesday to discuss the SJP’s classification of Israel as an apartheid state, and even invited SJP to the event, despite the anti-normalization policy.
Wartenberg explained that J Street U’s more neutral approach to the issue and purpose of its event aimed to stimulate dialogue.
“We got involved in this week because we felt that … the rhetoric surrounding Israeli Apartheid Week hurt our cause to find peace and coexistence between the two peoples and work towards that two state solution. We felt that using words like ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’ made it a one-sided conversation, and polarized the conflict, delegitimized Israel in a way,” Wartenberg said. “We wanted to open up a place for discussion rather than leading the week to become more polarizing.”