UMSU’s recent decision to ban Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) from campus represents a failing on the part of the council to differentiate between racism and discrimination, and legitimate criticism of state policy.
Josh Morry, who tabled the motion to ban the group, argued that SAIA made him and several other Jewish students feel uncomfortable and unsafe on campus. His logic was that Zionists support Israel, and SAIA maintains that Israel is a racist and apartheid state; therefore, SAIA is accusing Zionists of racism, which, in his words, puts a “target” on their backs. He argued that this amounts to discrimination based on racial or national identity, and violates the UMSU constitution.
This logic, however, is flawed. Firstly, it is false and dangerous to equate Jewish people with Zionists; Judaism is a religion and an ethnicity while Zionism is a political ideology. Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews. Therefore, to criticize Zionism is akin to criticizing, for example, liberalism or conservatism, not discriminating based on ethnicity. Many Jews, such as members of Independent Jewish Voices, are among the most outspoken activists against Israel’s policies.
Secondly, it is hardly debatable that by definition, Israel is an apartheid state. Apartheid can be defined as “a policy or practice of separating or segregating groups.” It is not hard to find examples of Israeli policies to which one can apply this definition.
Israel has illegally occupied the Palestinian territories, causing millions of Palestinians to flee their homeland. A person of Jewish descent with no family ties to Israel can immigrate as easily as if they were born there, while a Palestinian refugee cannot return to their home. Indeed, while Israel continues to pursue a policy of aggressive expansion of settlements on contested land, Palestinian homes are regularly demolished by the Israeli Defence Force; the United Nations and Amnesty International have both decried this practice as violating international human rights.
Palestinians living under the occupation have separate roads and are subject to military checkpoints that prevent them from travelling freely. They have separate laws and a separate military justice system; Israel currently holds around 4,700 Palestinian prisoners. Israel regularly uses disproportionate violence against Palestinian civilians to suppress dissent. The blockade of Gaza has crippled its economy and caused a shortage of basic necessities from clean water to medical supplies. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that the blockade amounts to “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people.
The point is that criticism of the state of Israel and its policies is not only legitimate, but for those who value justice and human rights, it is necessary. And, to reiterate, it has nothing to do with discrimination against Jewish people. In fact, the decision to ban SAIA on the grounds of discrimination is ironic in two respects: first, it is ironic to accuse a group dedicated to eliminating discrimination of discrimination; second, it is ironic that, without adequate proof that SAIA has engaged in conduct that violates the UMSU constitution, its ban from campus essentially amounts to discrimination based on political belief.
Finally, there is a big difference between students being made to feel uncomfortable on campus and being made to feel unsafe. In order for students to legitimately claim that a student group violates their safety, there must be substantiated evidence of violence or harassment, and there was no such evidence presented in this case. While it may make one feel uncomfortable, being handed a flyer or seeing a poster that expresses a view with which one disagrees is not harassment.
Some members of UMSU pointed out that without sufficient evidence of violence, harassment, or discrimination, the legal grounds for banning SAIA are non-existent, as nothing in SAIA’s conduct or constitution violates the UMSU guidelines for student groups. In fact, SAIA’s own constitution expressly states that the group is anti-racist.
Throwing accusations of racism and discrimination whenever someone expresses an opinion critical of Israel is a tactic often employed by Zionists to silence and intimidate. No one wants to be accused of being anti-Semitic. But this false equation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is transparent, and frankly, UMSU shouldn’t have fallen for it. For these reasons, the ban should be lifted immediately.