Clashes and debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not new to Western’s campus. Whether centered around a former Israeli Defense Forces member speaking at Western or Israeli Apartheid Week’s presence on campus, public protests have become commonplace whenever the specter of the conflict is raised. The Israel On Campus-organized Israel Day display in the UCC on February 1st continued that tradition. At 2 pm, protestors with tape over their mouths and carrying signs condemning Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip moved in front of the display. After a hectic twenty minutes involving photos and impromptu interviews with the press, the protest was over as soon as it began and the demonstrators left peacefully. After the dust had settled, questions about the nature of cultural politics and protest itself hung in the air.
An apolitical display?
Israel Day was promoted as being without any political aim and having the sole goal, as a banner hanging at the back of the exhibition stated, of “celebrating diversity through culture.” As one participant said, “We have had speakers [in the past] come in and talk about issues that were more political, but this had no political slant. We’re just here to celebrate Israeli culture and that’s all.” The displays themselves echoed this apolitical sentiment as they featured samples of Israeli food and highlighted Israel’s contributions to the arts. Of course, the protestors saw the exhibit differently. Abeer Alaloul, a demonstrator, explained that, “We’re trying to show that Israel is an apartheid state that is oppressing the Palestinian people. By having a day like this and showing only the culture and food – which is Palestinian food – they sort of make you forget that there is anything going on in Israel when people are dying.” Alaloul’s insight raises valuable questions about the nature of Israel Day’s intentions. Were all the seemingly innocuous displays about Israeli food and dance really just a form of insidious depoliticized speech? Or, assuming IOC’s intentions were pure, were a group of people unfairly held accountable for the actions of an entire nation? The answers to these questions are ambiguous, as most things in life are.
IOC has a history of bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict home to Western in very political ways. Last year, they brought Benjamin Anthony, an IDF soldier, to speak in the UCC. It is fair to say that this was not a politically-neutral action by any stretch of the imagination as Benjamin was personally involved in the occupation of the Gaza Strip. In light of this, IOC could be seen as a club with a history of taking politically motivated actions. Whether or not the true intention of Israel Day was to obfuscate the reality of Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip (I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt in this respect), IOC’s past activities cast a long shadow over their events that makes any protest against Israel’s actions in Palestine not only legitimate – a sentiment that I hope is beyond reproach at a democratic institution such as Western – but appropriate.
Food and cultural politics
The demonstrators’ complaints also raised important questions about the politics of culture. One protestor echoed Alaloul’s sentiment about Israel Day co-opting Palestinian food and culture and claiming it as their own, but went even further and called it a form of cultural genocide. He explained, “If you look at the definition of genocide, it has as much to do with culture as it does with killing people.” When asked at what point a political protest becomes a cultural one, Alaloul countered by saying, “When you go into someone’s country and claim what is theirs as your own – that’s political. That’s an element of occupation and oppression.” The actual participants of Israel Day, however, did not see it that way. When confronted with Alaloul’s accusation, one participant, draped in the Israeli flag, refuted the allegation. “I don’t think that it’s political in the slightest. I’m a chef, and I often combine elements from many different cultures – for example, I may fuse French and Italian ingredients. I don’t see that as valuing one culture over another. I think food unites people, and that’s what we’re here to do – unite people.”
Although the protest and the reactions it incited were coloured in shades of grey, it got its message across in a relatively organized and largely respectful way. Of course, there were exceptions – one Israel Day participant loudly demanded the protestors explain their actions, and the demonstrators blocked access to the display. But remember, protests aren’t supposed to be convenient. In its successes and failures, the demonstration raised important questions about our own assumptions and biases surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of culture in political negotiation. As students at an institution that prides itself in the ability to think critically and openly, protests surrounding hot-button issues and the reactions they elicit should be celebrated and their implications reflected upon.