Campus Israel advocacy and the politics of “dialogue”

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In the early months of 2006, Israel advocacy groups at the University of Toronto had a problem on their hands. The previous year, the Arab Students’ Collective had organized a series of educational events under the banner of “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW) and was planning to do it again. Hoping to prevent IAW from becoming an annual phenomenon, Israel advocates devised strategies to deal with the threat. The local Hillel chapter lobbied the university administration and asked them to change the event’s name. Explaining their approach to the Canadian Jewish News, Hillel expressed its disinterest in “dwelling on events that point fingers at certain groups” while highlighting its commitment to “creating a dialogue in hopes that people will see we have a lot more in common.” Meanwhile, Betar-Tagar – a hard-line Zionist student group dedicated to the colonial teachings of Vladimir Jabotinsky – collaborated with off-campus Israel advocacy organizations to organize “Know Radical Islam Week.” The organizers of this counter-event claimed their intent was to educate students and faculty and encourage them “to work together and build bridges rather than work against each other.”1 While Hillel and Betar-Tagar selected different tactical responses to IAW, they were unified on the unlikeliest of points: their alleged interest in dialogue.

Appeals for dialogue extended by Israel advocacy groups should not be dismissed as irrelevant posturing. The language of dialogue and the implementation of “dialogue initiatives” have become central pillars of Israel advocacy on university campuses and must be addressed strategically. The language of dialogue appeals to proponents of liberal multiculturalism; it avoids confrontation, eschews anger and emotion in favour of “civil discourse,” and addresses personal narratives rather than systemic relations of power. Purporting to be apolitical forums, these dialogue initiatives bring together the two “sides” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as defined by ethnic and religious identity) in order to share their divergent narratives. These initiatives are typically intended to bring together Jewish Canadians and Arab or Muslim Canadians in a framework that I will refer to as the Jewish-Arab/Muslim dialogue framework or JAMD.2

Described using the language of openness, compassion, and difference, and garnering favourable media attention, JAMD initiatives are very attractive to the public and are becoming a useful tactic for Israel advocacy groups and their allies. This approach has become increasingly important as Palestine solidarity activists shift their efforts toward Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Responding to a 2005 call from over 170 Palestinian organizations, the international BDS campaign is committed to compelling Israel to “recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination” and to “fully [comply] with the precepts of international law.”3 Moving beyond awareness raising, campus-based BDS activists work towards concrete institutional change. Israel advocacy organizations and university administrations use JAMD as a political tactic to undermine this work through the manipulation of identity politics and the deliberate mystification of power and privilege. In what follows, I analyze the underlying assumptions of JAMD, provide an overview of campus Israel advocacy apparatuses, and examine recent examples of JAMDs in the interest of strengthening the strategic orientation of Palestine solidarity activists to the question of “dialogue.”

A matter of principle

Critiquing JAMD is no simple task. After all, isn’t it desirable that both sides of the conflict stop talking past each other, and start talking to each other? Isn’t it only through dialogue that moderates from both camps of the Israeli-Palestinian divide can stop trying to impose their narratives on each other, and start making the painful compromises necessary for peace?

My intent in this article is not to challenge the validity of dialogue. Compassionate, challenging, and principled dialogue is necessary for social change. The question is whether or not JAMDs deserve to be defined as such, and, by extension, whether the questions posed above are relevant to the struggle against Israeli apartheid.

Most JAMDs share similar beginnings. People who have not suffered under Israeli apartheid decide that local discussion about the topic is not “civilized” enough. Their efforts to counteract this supposed problem earn them public support and lead to their characterization as a “peacemaker.” Grand symbolic gestures usually follow. Recently, the Canadian Jewish News reported the story of a McGill University student who became “so fed up with the competition between pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians to get their versions of the Middle East conflict to the forefront on campus,” that she “decided to inject a little empathy into the debate.” She initiated the We Are Peace campaign, “aimed at building trust between students on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and giving them an opportunity to get to know one another without partisanship dominating the discourse.” At the launch, participants were treated to falafel, and painted a giant mural where the words Salaam/Shalom figured prominently. The mural was to hang in McGill’s main library until June “as a reminder to interact peacefully and diplomatically.”4

We Are Peace came into being around the same time that Palestinians were reeling from the Gaza massacre (Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead”), which claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people. The timing is significant; JAMD initiatives have often emerged in response to increased Palestine solidarity activity, and solidarity activity inevitably swells in response to worsening conditions in Palestine. Accordingly, during the fall of 2003 – one year after the uprising against Netanyahu at Concordia University5 – the Shalom/Salaam initiative was introduced at York University. Launched in response to increased Palestine solidarity organizing, Shalom/Salaam aimed “to develop a forum for more civilized dialogue.” To ensure this civility, group members agreed “to be vague on many issues to reduce the tension.” The group set up its first information table with great theatrical flourish “underneath balloons and peace banners depicting Israeli and Palestinian flags joined together with an image of a handshake.” Pushing the theme one step further, “Jewish kids wore Palestinian flags and Muslim students draped Israeli flags over their shoulders in an attempt to bring a level of humanity to the discussion.” Extending this bizarre understanding of identity politics to its logical conclusion, the Shalom/Salaam executive deliberately comprised four Muslim students, four Jewish students, and one “neutral member.”6

A core assumption of JAMD projects is that there are two parallel narratives to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that need to be validated by both “sides.” These two narratives are inextricably linked to group identities, and are described as the “Jewish narrative” and the “Arab” or “Muslim narrative.” This formulation reduces all Arab, Muslim, and Jewish thought into a static binary, whereby political positions are not based on critical thinking or personal values, but on mere identity. Within this framework, Arab and Muslim concern for the plight of the Palestinian people comes not from a commitment to social justice but from ethnic, religious, or national allegiance. Similarly, within JAMD the “Jewish narrative” is a Zionist one. Seen through this lens, to be Jewish entails support for the Israeli state.

Israel advocates commonly conflate Judaism and Zionism. Those who publicly challenge the Zionist consensus are therefore smeared as anti-Semites or as “self-hating Jews.”This formulation has bullied critics into silence and invoked an awful portrayal of Judaism. If we follow the Zionist argument – that a person is anti-Semitic for criticizing racism, apartheid, and colonialism, and that people of Jewish descent literally hate themselves if they offer the same critique – to its logical conclusion, we deduce that Judaism itself must be premised on racism, apartheid, and colonialism. Such Israel advocacy thus discloses its extremely anti-Jewish implications.

But the “Jewish narrative” of JAMD does more than exclude non-Zionist Jews. It also excludes the significant number of Jews of Arab descent by creating a rigid and artificial contrast between the “Arab narrative” and the “Jewish narrative.” Consequently, a more accurate description of the “Jewish narrative” that JAMD tries to universalize is the “narrative of Zionist Jews of European descent.” If, however, this formula is not followed and the Jewish members of a JAMD reject the Zionist narrative and accept the full equality of Palestinians (a project underway in numerous solidarity groups), then the JAMD’s artificial dichotomy is disrupted, and the supposed “dialogue” ceases to exist. The genius of JAMD is that it maintains a racist and exclusionary “Jewish narrative” through the very process by which it pleads for “dialogue.” JAMD actually requires the perpetuation of this narrative, without which it loses its purpose.

Instead of addressing the structural dynamics at the root of the conflict – namely colonialism, occupation, and apartheid – JAMD attempts to naturalize these dynamics as given, in order to reframe the “conflict” as if it were simply a global pathological hatred or misunderstanding between Jews and Arabs (or Muslims). “Dialogue” thus demands the acceptance of a process in which people identifying with different ethnic or religious groups convey their divergent “narratives” while leaving the structural roots of the problem untouched. Not only is such a project predisposed against transformative action, it is also structurally incapable of it. If a JAMD group ever decided to challenge Israeli government policy, it would become “political” and cease to be a “dialogue” group. At this point, it would likely be denounced by the very Israel advocacy groups that helped to get it off the ground.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing people together from different ethnic and religious backgrounds to discuss politics and share their feelings; indeed this could be the essence of a good group of friends. What is at issue is the way in which these meetings have been positioned as a political project aimed at “peace in the Middle East” or as an alternative to principled political action. These initiatives displace the goal of struggle: no longer is the objective to end apartheid in Palestine but instead to foster greater tolerance and more refined manners between members of different ethnic and religious groups. In short, borrowing from Simone de Beauvoir’s important remark, such a project aims at “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them.”7

It is possible that JAMD participants believe that their sheer willingness to listen to the other “narrative” provides an important model for peaceful co-existence. Yet this analysis is again based on the idea that the conflict in Palestine is simply a religious or ethnic misunderstanding, and consequently that the solution is to demonstrate the ease with which Jews and Muslims (or Arabs) can converse over hummus and falafel. Unfortunately, Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled Bantustans are unable to sit down and chat with Israelis. Even if they could, in the absence of an unequivocal basis of solidarity, should such conversations be considered “dialogue”? Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, answers this question quite candidly:

Those who imagine they can wish away the conflict by suggesting some forums for rapprochement, détente, or “dialogue” not conditioned upon common recognition of international law and universal human rights are either clinically delusional or dangerously deceptive…The mutual recognition of equal humanity ought to be a necessary precondition for, never a consequence of dialogue.8 [Italics added.]

Barghouti was writing from Palestine, where the contradictions are more pronounced than they are in North America. However, his analysis remains relevant to the problem of JAMD. When understood through the framework of separate Jewish and Arab “narratives,” those subscribing to the former occupy a position of extreme privilege; their ability to immigrate to Israel and become full citizens in an apartheid system is based on the denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land. It’s therefore not surprising that JAMDs are often described using the language of “civil discourse.” This framing is meant to encourage dispassionate exchange and suspend emotional responses or value judgments – a much easier proposition for those whose privilege is enshrined in the status quo.

Expecting Palestinians or Palestine solidarity activists to refrain from expressing anger at those who justify the oppression of the Palestinian people is patronizing at best. Moreover, it marks a deliberate attempt to obstruct effective anti-colonial action. For principled dialogue to occur, participants must be willing to engage in transformative action. Otherwise, dialogue becomes a means by which to adapt to an unjust situation rather than to change it. Principled dialogue is a horizontal process. It occurs between equals who share a common interest in solidarity. Outside of these conditions, dialogue becomes an exercise in power relations. Considering the unwillingness of JAMD initiatives to recognize privilege or undertake transformative action, it’s clear that JAMDs do not constitute nor promote the principled dialogue we need in our movements. As such, they must be critically deconstructed and confronted in a way that advances the dynamic dialogue and grounded solidarity of the BDS movement.

Campus Israel Advocacy

The Israel advocacy movement uses the rhetoric of “dialogue” to suppress Palestine solidarity activism on university campuses. To analyze concrete instances, it is important to understand our current context. In the weeks leading up to Israeli Apartheid Week 2009, major Canadian Zionist organizations began to flex their muscles. B’nai Brith Canada issued full-page advertisements in the National Post describing the week as a “Hate Fest.” They urged IAW critics to “withhold contributions to universities that allow such vitriol” and to write to university presidents demanding that their campuses “not be used as venues for promoting hatred.”9 The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (another off-campus Israel advocacy organization) circulated a press release decrying “the emergence of anti-Semitism at Canadian Universities” and alleged that campuses have “been overtaken by a movement of hate and intolerance toward Israel and the Jewish people…”10 Implying criminality, B’nai Brith Canada also sent a communiqué to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police insisting that they be on “high alert” for IAW. The communiqué also sought “assurances that emergency measures will be put in place to safeguard students from openly hostile activity.”11

The leadership of Canada’s major political parties unapologetically sang the tune of Canada’s Israel lobby. On 3 March 2009, Conservative Cabinet Minister Jason Kenney stated that he was “deeply concerned about the activities associated with Israeli Apartheid Week” and urged students who planned on attending or participating in IAW events to “reflect on whether these activities are beneficial or are simply an effort to cloak hatred and intolerance in an outward appearance of intellectual inquiry.” Not to be outdone, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff followed up two days later with a National Post op-ed entitled “Israel Apartheid Week and CUPE Ontario’s anti-Israel posturing should be condemned.” Rising to the occasion, a number of university administrations actively attempted to thwart IAW activities. Although the suppression strategy employed by these off-campus groups is unsurprising, the scale and coordinated nature of their attempt is notable, and their efforts are strengthened by the increasingly sophisticated tactical complement of JAMD initiatives.

Hillel is the key Israel advocacy organization at most Canadian universities, and operates on over 500 campuses around the globe. While claiming to represent Jewish students regardless of political orientation, Hillel is an explicitly Zionist organization and a key organizing hub for Israel advocacy on most campuses; it recruits for free propaganda trips to Israel, provides detailed resources on Israel advocacy, and aims, through “Israel education,” to “cultivate among students a passion about Israel and to cultivate within them a sense of personal attachment with the country and its people.”12

While Hillel is the public face of the campus Zionist movement, it is but a single player in a much larger Israel advocacy apparatus. Israel advocacy in Canada was drastically realigned in 2003/2004, mainly through the efforts of the “Israel Emergency Cabinet,” a small group that includes some of the country’s most prominent Jewish Canadians.13 This group quickly evolved into the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), which now coordinates the advocacy activities of several major Jewish and Israel-advocacy organizations, including the Canada-Israel Committee and the Canadian Jewish Congress. Responding to concerns about the increased strength of Palestine solidarity efforts on Canadian campuses, CIJA launched the National Jewish Campus Life (NJCL) initiative and flooded campus advocates with resources for training, conferences, and Israel propaganda trips. It even hired eight professional Israel advocacy specialists at universities across the country. In 2004, the NJCL formed the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students (CFJS). The group brought together 30 Hillels and allied groups from across the country to coordinate national strategy.14

Working parallel to the NJCL under the CIJA umbrella is the University Outreach Committee (UOC). This committee was founded “to advance outreach to University administrations, faculty, donors, and others outside the student realm.” In 2009, the UOC helped establish a faculty initiative called the Canadian Academic Friends of Israel (CAFI). Together, the UOC and CAFI promote the manipulation of Student Codes of Conduct to shut down campus debate on Palestine. Borrowing a page from Orwell, CAFI describes this process as “working with the administrations to enhance academic freedom by diminishing radicalism on campus and promoting civil discourse through the enforcement of Codes of Conduct.”15

The political activities of individual Hillel chapters vary depending on the context in which they operate, but since the formation of NJCL the whole Hillel organization seems to have adopted the tactical emphasis on “dialogue” and “coexistence.” NJCL has nurtured this shift by taking what it calls a “shared values” approach to Israel advocacy. Using this approach, the organization foregrounds subjects like “the quest for peace, the principles of democracy, education, family, and free enterprise.” According to NJCL chair Richard Diamond: “These are the values of Israel, these are the values of the Jewish people, and, indeed, these are the values of Canadians.”16 Projects proposed by the NJCL during its first year and in support of its “year-long theme of peace” included a cross-Canada campus tour by an Israeli DJ and visual artist who would help to kick off a “Party for Peace.” The tour was to be followed by a cross-country “peace train” that would bring together students from different campuses. Lance Davis, the NJCL’s director at the time, told the Canadian Jewish News in August 2003 that the goal of the programming was to “demonstrate that Israel is rooted in peace.”17 The NJCL tries to neutralize anti-apartheid activism through the language of “peace” and “dialogue,” and the UOC tries to shut down critical debate, discussion, and activism around Palestine. Taken together, the NJCL’s student-centered organizing and the UOC’s higher-level advocacy form the basis of CIJA’s comprehensive campus Israel advocacy strategy.

With the formation of the NJCL, the change in strategy was visible on some campuses instantaneously. In 2002/2003, Hillel Concordia organized on-campus recruitment for the Israeli military, an action for which the group was suspended by the Concordia Student Union. The following year, the group shifted its image and organized “Coexistence Day.” The effectiveness of this strategic reorientation owes much to common acceptance of the “middle ground fallacy” – the fallacy of assuming that the two opposing positions in a dispute are automatically wrong and the middle position is assumed to be correct. On this basis, students engaging in JAMD have gained widespread support for their fair and “moderate” positions, which stand in sharp contrast to the “extremists” who openly challenge the apartheid-nature of the Israeli State and seek to end any institutional complicity with it. Given the success of Israel advocacy organizations in influencing Canadian trade, diplomatic, and security policy, the Zionist movement does not need to “win” the campuses. It merely needs to neutralize them so that they do not emerge as a grassroots counterweight. Positioning JAMD as an acceptable alternative to anti-apartheid activism has become an effective tactic for achieving this aim.

With the Palestine solidarity movement growing on Canadian campuses, schisms have emerged within the Israel advocacy community. Some groups are not satisfied with the CIJA approach. Although Hillel appears willing to centre its messaging around “dialogue” (while simultaneously lobbying university officials), other groups and individuals are fed up with this strategy. Lawrence Hart, a professor at McMaster University and the former Community Relations Chair of the Canada-Israel Committee, explained his critique of Hillel’s reliance on “dialogue” in the Canadian Jewish News. Describing Hillel’s dialogue strategy as “misguided and self-defeating,” Hart claims that it denies “our students a particular opportunity to define who they are, to assert their identities as Jews and as Zionists.”18 For Hart, more pro-active Zionist advocacy is necessary. Although admitting that dialogue can be an effective tool for Israel advocacy, he argues that it requires proper guidelines and the right people. To illustrate, he describes the collapse of the Hamilton Jewish Arab Muslim dialogue group (of which he was a part). According to Hart, the group fell apart when some of its members breached their agreement “to avoid debate on the Mideast conflict and refrain from comments or actions that could be perceived to be critical of the group or their interests.”19 The Kafkaesque nature of such a code of conduct speaks volumes to the kind of “dialogue” that Israel advocates deem “acceptable.”

Recent Cases

The striking ways that “dialogue” can be used to suppress Palestine solidarity organizing are evident in the recent actions of administrations at McMaster and Carleton universities. During IAW 2008, the McMaster administration banned the term “Israeli Apartheid” and sparked a significant mobilization in opposition to their decision. In response, the administration initiated the “McMaster Peace Initiative,” a policy framework allegedly intended to stimulate “forward-thinking debate and deliberation to advance diverse viewpoints in the spirit of inclusiveness and academic integrity.” Among other things, the signatories to the Peace Initiative commit to “engage in a balanced and informed discourse that focuses on common interests” and to “move beyond the language of demonization and delegitimization.” Additionally, all signatories commit to issuing a joint response to any members of the campus community who act in ways deemed counter to Peace Initiative principles.20

By trying to find “balance” in an inherently unbalanced situation, the Peace Initiative marginalizes those seeking to address root causes. In so doing, it actively perpetuates the middle ground fallacy. By focusing on “common interests,” the framework for dialogue inevitably fails to address (and thus perpetuates) the very conflict that is the supposed impetus for its existence. The Initiative’s requirement to refrain from “demonization and delegitimization” effectively prohibits descriptions of Israel as an apartheid state and discussions about the strategic value and political necessity of an academic boycott – both topics are perceived to demonize and delegitimize the Israeli state. Falling squarely within the JAMD framework, the signatories to the McMaster Peace Initiative are representatives from Jewish and Muslim student and faculty groups. These signatories include Hart, in his capacity as President of McMaster’s Jewish Faculty Association.

Predictably, the Peace Initiative earned positive media coverage for the McMaster administration and portrayed Israel advocacy groups as peace-loving “moderates.” Rebecca Cherniak, signatory and president of Israel on Campus, was quoted in the Hamilton Spectator:

This is not a conflict of Palestinians and Israelis… It’s a conflict of extremists versus moderates. The more effort that moderates make to strengthen the relationship, the better off we will be and the more we will be able to achieve in the name of peace.21

While the Peace Initiative clearly fulfilled the public relations aims of Israel advocacy groups and the McMaster administration, what were its effects on the ground? Did it create the safe, inclusive space that it promised?

Anisa Mirza, President of McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice (MMPJ), is clear in her appraisal of the Peace Initiative: “So far it’s done nothing. It simply exists on paper.” In fact, Mirza contends that IAW 2009 events at McMaster faced unprecedented aggression, disruption, and intimidation by Israel advocates. Among other incidents, this intimidation included an audience member physically confronting a keynote speaker at the end of her lecture, throwing sheets of paper at her, cursing and demanding that she “educate [herself] on the situation.”

Mirza is in a unique position to comment – MMPJ was one of the lead organizers for IAW 2008 at McMaster, as well as a signatory to the Peace Initiative. After the above-mentioned disruptions of IAW 2009 by Israel advocates, MMPJ asked the other Peace Initiative signatories for a joint response, in line with the document’s stipulations. No such response is forthcoming, intensifying suspicions that the Peace Initiative’s regulatory mechanisms were only intended to target Palestine solidarity work. Considering both its context and impact, it becomes clear that through the sophisticated JAMD form of advocacy, the McMaster Peace Initiative reframed Israeli apartheid as an issue of Jewish-Muslim community relations, created a regulatory framework that delegitimized Palestine solidarity organizing, and allowed the McMaster administration to avoid accountability for its discriminatory actions towards students concerned about Palestinian human rights.

A similar tactical orientation for suppressing student activism by combining high-level administrative lobbying, intimidation using various codes of conduct, and the rhetoric of “dialogue” is emerging at Carleton University. In the lead-up to IAW 2009, the Carleton administration used heavy-handed tactics to intimidate its organizers. On 11 February 2009, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA Carleton) was informed that the university’s Equity Services had banned the internationally used IAW poster from campus (see Figure 1) because it “could be seen to incite others to infringe rights protected in the Ontario Human Rights code” and was “insensitive to the norms of civil discourse in a free and democratic society.” The next day, a vaguely worded and ominous email was sent to the entire Carleton community by the University Provost, Feridun Hamdullaphur, alluding to discriminatory behavior “related to the serious and tragic conflict that recently took place in the Middle East.” In an indirect but obvious reference to IAW, he insisted that Carleton “will not tolerate actions that infringe or contravene the Ontario Human Rights Code and Carleton’s own University Human Rights Policy and Procedures.” Hamdullaphur concluded by noting that, “among other sanctions that may be applied under these policies, students can be withdrawn from their studies indefinitely.”

SAIA Carleton is now taking the Carleton senior administration to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, and mediation is pending. Ironically, it was partly the senior administration’s inappropriate use of the Ontario Human Rights Code to suppress student activism that has led to its own hearing before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. To date, the administration has refused to elaborate on alleged incidents of discrimination and has opted instead for rumours, allusions, and innuendo. As at McMaster, Carleton students and faculty rallied against these attempts at suppression, organizing large demonstrations, initiating a global letter-writing campaign directed at the administration, and gaining significant Canadian and Israeli media coverage.

In response, and drawing on the success of the McMaster model, on 7 April 2009 the Carleton President sent SAIA Carleton an offer to sign the “Carleton Peace and Dialogue Initiative” with the stated goal of getting all student groups to sign onto it. The document began by highlighting the president’s hope that the initiative would be the “first step to creating a context where meaningful discussion occurs” – a peculiar position from a University administration with a staunch pro-Israel stance.22

The carefully worded Initiative argues that “constructive discussion will best occur in an environment which encourages the free exchange of ideas in a format which avoids intimidating, hurtful and inflammatory language or images.” It also links signatories to a number of commitments, which are “in harmony with the university’s pre-existing codes of conduct.” These commitments, which are to be interpreted by Equity Services and the University secretariat, are bizarre and ambiguous, and range from a commitment to “contribute to scholarship and to positive solutions to world problems” to a commitment to not put forward statements that “advocate or promote genocide.” Rather than address the legitimate concerns of students and faculty that led to this initiative – namely, the litany of public pro-Israel statements by members of the Carleton administration, the targeting of a student group for its anti-apartheid activism, and the suppression of free expression on campus when discussing Palestine – the Carleton administration has opted instead for a slick public relations campaign. It is important to note that in all of these initiatives the administration has tried to position itself as mediator between two opposing sides in an imagined conflict (between Jewish and Arab or Muslim students) in order to conceal the fact that the conflict is essentially between itself and a student group. In this way, JAMD is positioned as an alternative to public debate about the senior administration’s opposition to BDS.

Lest one think that the JAMD initiatives are unrelated to the larger goals of Israel advocacy organizations, a 28 July 2009 submission from Israel advocates to the York University Task Force on Student Life, Learning, and Community makes these links clear. According to its Terms of Reference, this Task Force was created because “recent events on campus have raised serious concerns over whether our most cherished values and commitments are being undermined by excessive conflict, intolerance, and even intimidation.”23 The authors of this brief – Hillel of Greater Toronto, Hasbara at York, CIJA, and other groups – recommend that York University ensure that the “content of authorized publications … makes a positive contribution to an atmosphere of respectful dialogue and civil discourse” and that the University utilize “the management of student levy dollars” to ensure that the York Federation of Students “promotes the same atmosphere.” They additionally recommend that the university prevent Vari Hall from being “booked by students groups for political purposes.”24 The Israel advocacy organizations leave it to the administration to determine what constitutes “civil discourse” and “political purposes.”

The submission largely focused on the enforcement of the University Code of Conduct and recommended that it be amended to empower York Security to issue “meaningful financial penalties” to students who violate it. Regarding the Code’s existing enforcement mechanisms, the submission recommended that administrators be swift to suspend and expel students who violate it, believing this to be “one of the most significant steps toward setting a new, respectful tone and a safer environment on campus.” Interestingly, along with these recommendations for administrative control of expression and an increased focus on policing, the submission also recommended that the “university should play a role in fostering partnerships and dialogue among groups with opposing views on campus.” In order to do so, it suggested putting aside specific funds for such initiatives and designating individuals “to champion bridge building between opposing groups on campus.” The authors specifically named the McMaster Peace Initiative as a model to emulate.25

The BDS response to dialogue

Having established a critique of JAMD, and considered the way in which it has been implemented on Canadian campuses, it remains necessary to consider the more difficult question of how to respond to such initiatives. I can’t provide overarching answers; every response will need to be context-specific. Nevertheless, I will offer some thoughts that I hope will support activists navigating the JAMD terrain.

First, we must acknowledge that responding to JAMD is difficult and requires clear analysis. JAMD appeals to dominant myths and to the language of multiculturalism while also serving broader public relations objectives. When equipped with the rhetoric of dialogue and the institutionalization of JAMD, it’s easier for campus Israel advocates to appeal to the student body and to marginalize Palestine solidarity activists as “extremists.” We must therefore avoid two traps: submitting to co-optation by legitimizing JAMD as an alternative to political action, and rejecting JAMD without disseminating our critique. We must lay bare the underlying assumptions of JAMD and, in doing so, critically distinguish between principled and unprincipled dialogue. In order to avoid these traps, it is important that we publicly reveal the cynical manipulation of the concept of “dialogue” by Israel advocacy groups, and that we struggle to reclaim the word. This provides an opportunity for education; in our response we can name the actions and motives of Israel advocacy organizations and refocus attention on what is happening in Palestine. To do so, internal education and discussion about the nuances of JAMD are fundamental.

When engaging with JAMD, it is important that our political strategy be flexible. We must be clear about our goals and allow them to guide our strategy and tactics. For campus-based Palestine solidarity activists, our goal is to build a movement strong enough to compel transformative action at our universities in solidarity with the Palestinian BDS call. To meet this goal, it is unnecessary to engage with everyone who has a contrary opinion on Palestine. Spending our time in endless conversations with supporters of Israeli apartheid is a misuse of limited resources – it is better to focus on people who are not viscerally opposed to our position. That said, it’s important to avoid the kind of posturing or dogmatism by which we refuse to engage with people who do not entirely adopt our basis of unity; these postures ensure insularity and marginalization. To build the BDS movement, it is necessary that activists share information, answer questions, and participate in discussion and debate with the public at large. We can recognize useful instances to engage Israel advocates by the presence of an audience. By listening to the debate, members of that audience may come to support BDS.

Responding to JAMD requires nuanced analysis and creativity. While we must be cautious not to neutralize our activism by accepting the JAMD framework, we must think creatively about how to engage JAMD initiatives according to the constraints and opportunities of specific contexts. Should certain members of our groups participate in JAMD in order to bring people into Palestine solidarity organizing? Should we agree to participate in a JAMD on the condition that all “dialogue” take place in a public forum? If we reject JAMD outright, can we do so in a way that will strengthen the position of the BDS movement on campus? With a clear sense of our goals and a clear analysis of JAMD, we can begin to answer these questions and learn to respond effectively. It’s a necessary task for everyone supporting the struggle for peace and justice in Palestine.


1 Sheri Shefa, “Hillel seeks name change for ‘Israeli Apartheid Week,’” Canadian Jewish News,

2 These dialogues are sometimes positioned as Jewish-Arab dialogues and at other times as Jewish-Muslim dialogues. Interestingly, in both cases, the “other” in relation to the Jewish participants is not explicitly made up of Palestinians, the group with the most at stake in the outcome of the conflict. To keep my writing concise, I refer to such dialogues as JAMD (Jewish-Arab-Muslim Dialogue). It is important to note that I am not referring to genuine dialogue between Jewish and Arab or Muslim Canadians, but the popular “feel-good” framework of dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I critique in this article.

3 Palestinian Civil Society Calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights, Gloabal BDS Movement,

4 Janice Arnold, “Give Mideast peace a chance, student initiative urges,” Canadian Jewish News,

5 On 9 September 2002, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former (and now current) Prime Minister of Israel was set to kick off a Canadian speaking tour at Concordia University. Metal barricades were set up around the building where he was slated to speak, snipers were posted on the roof, and dozens of police had been on hand since the morning. Netanyahu’s presence sparked enormous counter-demonstration of over 1000 protesters, which resulted in the cancellation of the talk, numerous arrests, and extreme police violence against the protesters using batons and pepper-spray.

6 Anna Morgan, “Shalom-Salam: A calm in the campus storm,” Canadian Jewish News,

7 Omar Barghouti, “The morality of a cultural boycott of Israel,” Open Democracy,

8 Ibid.

9 B’nai Brith Canada,

10 Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Cantre: Racism Reaches New Heights on Canadian Campuses,

11 ‘Radicalism taking root on university campuses,’ warns B’nai Brith Canada in communique to police chiefs, B’nai Brith Canada,

12 Hillel’s Vision for Israel on Campus, Hillel: The foundation for Jewish Campus Life,

13 The Israel Emergency Cabinet was composed of, among others, Israel Asper, CEO of CanWest Global; Gerry Schwartz, co-founder with Asper of CanWest Global and CEO of Onex Corporation; Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo/Chapters Books; and Brent Belzberg, owner of Torquest Partners. For a detailed history of Israel advocacy in Canada, see Dan Freeman Maloy’s 2006 article “AIPAC North,” ZNet,

14 The specific organizations whose advocacy activities CIJA oversees are the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee, the Quebec-Israel Committee, the National Committee for Jewish Campus Life, and the University Outreach Committee.

15 CAFI’s mission, Canadian Academic Friends of Israel,

16 UJA Federation of Greater Toronto,

17 Frances Kraft, “Peace is the word for national campus group,” Canadian Jewish News,

18 Sheri Shefa, “Speakers clash on how to fight campus anti-Semitism,” Canadian Jewish News,

19 Lawrence Hart, “Hamilton dialogue collapses,” Canadian Jewish News,

20 “McMaster Peace Initiative,” McMaster Daily News,

21 Wade Hemsworth, “Accord brings peace to McMaster campus,” The Hamilton Spectator,

22 Days before SAIA Carleton’s first event “Israeli Crimes, Canadian Complicity” which brought speakers from Al Haq, a Palestinian Human Rights organization, the Carleton Provost sent a university-wide email clarifying that the event is not officially sponsored by Carleton and does not “represent an official position or commentary from Carleton University” even though such a claim was never made. Furthermore, despite the fact that the current and previous presidents of Carleton University have unilaterally condemned the proposal of an institutional boycott of Israeli universities by the UK University and College Union, current President Roseann Runte refused the request by 56 Carleton professors to similarly condemn the deliberate aerial bombardment of the Islamic University of Gaza by the Israeli Air Force. This same President went on a well publicized trip to Israel under the Jerusalem Center for Public Affair’s “Israel Advocacy Initiative” in the summer of 2005. In her online blog from the trip, she refers to Israel’s apartheid wall as “enormously popular.”

23 Terms of reference of the Task Force on Student Life, Learning & Community, York University Website,

24 Vari Hall rotunda is the symbolic threshold to York University’s Keele campus. Its design and central location make it the primary desired site for organized political dissent. Prompted by financial and political pressure, administrators at numerous universities try to undermine student activist capacities by limiting access to campus resources, especially space. At York, this suppressive tactic has provoked sustained strategic contestation of Vari Hall.

25 Canada Israel Committee, Submission to the York U. Task Force on Student Life, Learning and Community, CIC,