CU Apartheid Divest’s annual Israeli Apartheid Week kicked off on Monday with a forum on the policies and history of Israel’s government. Titled “Zionists are Racist,” the event was attended by an enthusiastic but divided crowd that was repeatedly interrupted.
Controversy over the event and Israeli Apartheid Week first erupted even before the week began. At a Columbia College Student Council meeting on Sunday night, the council held a protracted debate over a request by Columbia University Apartheid Divest for CCSC to co-sponsor the weeklong series of events. The request brought a large crowd and extensive discussion over student government’s role in political and controversial events on campus in general.
“It is our job is to represent all of our constituents,” Pre-Professional Representative Dave Mendelson, CC ’19, said. “Taking a position on a very controversial campus issue does not fulfill that role.”
Vice President for Finance Anuj Sharma, CC ’17, disagreed, noting that requests from “a particular political group that holds a particular stance” should be treated by the council in “a content-neutral manner.”
CUAD’s request for co-sponsorship, which was put to a vote, was ultimately rejected on Sunday, but only after three separate attempted motions to suspend debate and numerous comments from council members and the audience.
The event on Monday, attended by nearly 100 people, focused on the history of Israel’s policy toward minority groups and included presentations by members of CUAD and a Skype call with South African human rights lawyer Barney Pityana.
“At the moment, the Palestinian cause needs advocates. It’s never been weaker,” Pityana, who served as chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission, said. “The conscience of the world needs to be aroused, afreshed.”
In the Q&A that followed his talk, Pityana was asked whether he agreed with the title of the forum, “Zionists are Racists.” In response, Pityana noted that Zionism “very often is made to look and sound too simple” for the purpose of expressing “particular views.”
“There are views of Zionism that do allow for a possibility of a state of Israel and Palestine, together,” Pityana said. “I never thought that Zionism, per se, is a racist ideology. I’m not ready to say that.”
The forum was not without interruptions, first from a protester in Israeli national colors waving the Israeli flag, who entered in the middle of the presentation singing loudly in Hebrew. After this interruption, an unscheduled fire alarm went off, forcing attendees to evacuate the building. However, the event and the presentation were quickly resumed.
The crowd, which primarily consisted of supporters of CUAD, laughed and applauded as the singing protester was escorted out of the room. A sizable number of attendees, however, were members of Aryeh, one of Columbia’s pro-Israel student groups. Wearing dark blue sweatshirts that read “Zionist,” the Aryeh members like Albert Mishaan, CC ’19, said they attended because they believed it was important to hear what CUAD members had to say.
“I heard from their perspective,” Mishaan said after the event. “I’m not sure if it represents anything other than the most extreme possible perspective.”
Others at the event were more hopeful about improving the dialogue between the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus.
“In all my individual conversations with people, I am hopeful,” Talya Wintman, BC ’20, said. “I think that most people have nuanced opinions and are open to other ideas. … That would be incredibly exciting for me, personally.”
Kate Huangpu and Jesús Guerra contributed reporting.