Building an anti-apartheid activist

Like most people, I have a tough time caring about events and issues that don’t directly influence me or my immediate surroundings. I don’t think this makes us bad people; it just makes us products of our finite capacity for compassion and a culture that trains us to be both ethnocentric and egocentric. When I do read the odd news article about events in other countries, I get easily overwhelmed by the amount of new information for which I have no frame of reference. I also get overwhelmed by the enormity of the horrors that take place that I have no hope to prevent.

It took a lot of internal struggle and study of the issues, but I’m now a member of the committee that is organizing this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week. I have found that being an active participant in the “Is Israel an apartheid state?” debate is quite strange. For example, while tabling over the course of just two days at the U of W, I had several people give me the middle finger, someone balled up our handbill and threw it in my face, and I was called a “disgusting human being” and a “Jew hater.” I’ve been involved in some pretty controversial political actions and I’ve never had so much hatred directed towards me as there was during those two days. Despite what I experienced, I will be back tabling again and will continue to publicly speak out against Israeli apartheid.

Here’s how my journey from wilful ignorance to active participation shook out:

Prior to the spring of last year, I knew next to nothing about Israel. I knew that it was the only Jewish state, that it was the site of turmoil that went back centuries, and I knew that a bunch of crazy Christians thought that once Jews returned to Israel it would trigger World War III and usher in the second coming of Christ.

So with few preconceptions and nothing better to do, I decided to attend Yves Engler’s Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid book launch on April 16, 2010. Although I didn’t understand very much of what Engler talked about, I knew that between partition walls, white phosphorous grenades, “Operation Cast Lead,” illegal settlements and a naval blockade that the state of Israel was clearly acting like a complete asshole. And Canada supported Israel and protected them from criticism more than any other country, which makes Canada an even bigger asshole.

I didn’t buy the book that night, and I still wasn’t able to pick a side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Maybe Engler had presented some falsehoods or left out important information that would make the situation more complex. The idea that Hamas, and other groups that were fighting against Israel, had an overtly racist agenda that was troubling. The fact that I wasn’t Jewish or Palestinian and didn’t know anyone who felt strongly about either side made me feel uncomfortable with declaring one side the victim and the other the victimizer.

Then, on May 31, the Gaza flotilla raid happened. The Mavi Marmara was boarded illegally in international waters from an Israeli Defense Force helicopter. Nine activists were killed; one of them only 19 years old. All the activists were trying to do was to break a blockade that stopped things like building supplies and cookies from coming into the Gaza Strip. Fucking cookies had to be stopped to ensure the security of Israel. And the government of Canada knew this blockade was going on and did nothing to stop it?

Another flashpoint moment was when I learned that the Manitoba minister of education was teaming up with a Jewish rights organization called B’nai Brith to condemn a question that appeared in a provincial high school exam. The question used an excerpt from an essay by Chantal Kreviazuk that mentioned suffering children in Gaza. Somehow, it’s anti-Semitic to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians?

Eventually I bought Engler’s book and read it over the course of the next few weeks. The most fascinating thing to me was learning about how Israel came to be. According to Engler’s book, after WWII, Canada could have accepted the Jewish refugees from Europe, but they decided against it. Instead, they sent them to Palestine because it was the plan that the United States advocated and Canada was keen to align itself with the emerging superpower. Populating Palestine with displaced Jews served U.S. interests by giving them a strategic position to attack the USSR and ensuring access to oil supplies. Additionally, and this is completely insane, anti-Semitism was so rampant that it factored into not letting the Jewish refugees to emigrate to North America.

What this meant was that Israel was a colonial state just like Canada is, and that Israel’s existence and location was neither an inevitability nor an accident.

I finally understood enough about Israel and Palestine to know where I stood. It’s not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. It’s not about a one-state or two-state solution. It’s about the powerful oppressing the weak and about protecting human rights for all.

Rob McGregor encourages you to join him in attending Israeli Apartheid Week events starting March 14 at the U of M and the U of W to learn more.


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