Defending the radical tradition of Israeli Apartheid Week

Defending the radical tradition of Israeli Apartheid Week
In the face of rampant government and institutional repression, university students across the UK must uphold the political roots of Israeli Apartheid Week and sustain the struggle for Palestinian liberation year round, writes Yara Derbas.
6 min read
25 Apr, 2022
Students protest outside King's College London to demand that UK universities divest from companies and institutions that profit from the occupation of Palestine in line with the BDS movement. [Getty]

The time comes every year for students to begin planning for Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at their respective universities, with the intention of raising political consciousness around Palestine on campuses.

Along with political education, IAW was initially established to carve out time during the year for grassroots organisers and organisations to mobilise people to join political campaigns, such as campaigns for BDS.

For students, creating this space on campus on an annual basis has mobilised a significant and tangible shift in the discourse around Palestine over the years, with various issues surrounding Palestine/Israel now finding themselves on the tips of tongues.

"In the span of my time at university and the IAWs I have attended and organised, I would argue that there has been a decline in the desire to politicise and mobilise students on campuses across Britain"

Events on the ground in Palestine now regularly influence student activity in Britain, the most recent catalyst being the Palestinian uprisings that sparked last summer. However, based on my own observations of the way student organising for IAW has unfolded in recent years, I feel that there is a disparity between the intended purpose that this week was meant to serve and the current reality that IAW has become.

In the span of my time at university and the IAWs I have attended and organised, I would argue that there has been a decline in the desire to politicise and mobilise students on campuses across Britain. I have noticed that Palestine societies tend to focus on “raising awareness” about Palestine, but often this seems to be the extent of the work that the societies do.

This seems to be a rising phenomenon in student politics, particularly given the value we place on social media and visibility, but I think there are more pressing factors which are contributing to this issue. 

I would attribute much of this depoliticisation to the increasing repression of Palestinian activism by the UK government, which has manifested in the forms of fear-mongering, hyper-securitisation, silencing and censorship.

The implementations of the Prevent Duty (2015) and the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism have attempted to stifle political dissent when it comes to speaking out about Palestinian liberation, and the links between government policy and university procedure are crucial for us to connect.

To give an example, a recent student occupation at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to pressure management to adhere to student and staff demands, including those relating to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestine, was violently shut down by private bailiffs who were called by SOAS management. The recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a stark example of this and how our universities operate in a microcosm of the state’s wider agenda to crush the right to protest.

Another budding governmental policy designed to extinguish Palestinian activism, which would undoubtedly be enforced at universities, is the anti-BDS legislation, which has been looming over us for a while. While students have remained steadfast in the face of such extensive repression tactics, it has been essential for us to account for the specific local context of each university when it has come to planning for IAW this year.


The opposition that Palestine societies face from hostile bodies such as university administrations or student unions is more severe at certain universities than others, and these organisations therefore require more support and alternative avenues for organising IAW. This hinders students’ ability to participate in, and promote, a more radical political orientation, which then coerces many Palestine societies to adopt a softer stance and appeal to the concept of “neutrality”. 

While this violation of free speech and academic freedom has affected students’ ability to organise freely, I would differentiate between the ability to organise and the desire to organise. Without a doubt, these repression tactics can be very demoralising, however, I identify this as separate to the lack of effort students are willing to put in to politicise and mobilise other students on campus during the year.

For IAW, Palestine societies plan events throughout the week, which often garner lots of attention during the week itself, but there will be little to no sustained activity in the society throughout the academic year. There is a pattern of unsustainability in student politics, due to the nature of changing student bodies every year, which I think is a key reason that many students have little desire to build and grow campaigns at the start of the academic year.

"For IAW, Palestine societies plan events throughout the week, which often garner lots of attention during the week itself, but there will be little to no sustained activity in the society throughout the academic year"

I am a strong advocate for students to be proactive about prioritising longevity of their society. Archiving the work being done by the Palestine society should become integral to the functioning of the society and its campaigns, allowing for lessons to be learned from present and past mistakes.

This is essential for students who want a long-term vision and focus, rather than sporadic events which are planned purely out of obligation. Sustaining a campaign is also difficult to do unless there is collective power in the group that is sustaining it. Campaigns cannot be singlehandedly run by one or two individuals, otherwise this leads to the campaign eventually fizzling out, and the leaders experiencing burnout.

In activism, burnout is an important issue that is often overlooked and neglected, due to the very nature that it is only the select few who experience it, by taking on all the work. IAWs can and often do turn out to be incredible for the masses who get involved with it, and this year we definitely managed to reinvigorate some of the energy that has been lost, but it tends to come at the expense of the welfare of its organisers, which is not sustainable.


Ironically, the more students volunteer to take on small tasks to help contribute to the realisation of IAW, the more desirable organising the week becomes for the collective - a vision I would trace back to the original aspirations of IAW. 

While these are difficult conditions under which students are organising, it is inspirational to see the resilience that continues among us. The UK government and the Israeli lobby have been persistent in their attempts to wipe out solidarity with Palestine for decades, but students have remained consistent in their message that the struggle for Palestinian liberation from Zionism will not be compromised.

Students have historically been at the forefront of social and political movements, and we will continue to confront these obstacles head-on so that we can experience our movement for justice to thrive.

Yara Derbas is a Palestinian student organiser, studying for her undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology at SOAS. She has been running the SOAS Palestine Society for the last few years and is involved with various other campaigns. Her dissertation research focus is on the fragmentation of the Palestinian political movement in Britain.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.