By Jordan Health-Rawlings
When students emerged from the Olive Baker Lounge after a presentation on violations of Palestinian human rights by Israel last December, they walked right into the far of pro-Israeli activism.
“Do you want this in your neighbourhood?” asked a poster featuring an Arab man dressed in the traditional Palestinian head scarf with a stick of dynamite strapped to his head.
“Speak out against Palestinian terror,” the poster told them.
That message didn’t go over well.
Some of the students took the posters to the RyeSAC offices complaining of discrimination and racism, where vice president finances and services mike Verticchio told them that the posters had not been approved, and were not suitable for the walls of Ryerson. Janitorial staff removed the rest of them.
Officially, the posters were removed because they were not approved by RyeSAC before their posting. But their content was what really sparked the uproar.
That content — which included posters asking students if they were I.D.I.O.T.s (an acronym for I’ve Divested In Original Thought) on their campus, and one featuring a picture of Yasser Arafar that asked students if they would buy a used car from the Palestinian Authority leader — may be controversial, but isn’t necessarily racist or hateful, Ryerson Officer of Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Ann Whiteside said.
“They are clearly meant to incite,” she said. “But I think it is probably more a political issue than it is a human rights issue.”
The controversial posters and the type of pre-emptive public relations strike they represent is a relatively new strategy for pro-Israeli activism, one that organizers hope will enable them to make further inroads among the undecided students attending North American universities.
Recently, campuses have been seen as hotbeds of support for the Palestinian cause.
A near-riot in September of 2002, at a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Concordia University in Montreal, left windows broken, tear gas in the air and graffiti strewn about campus.
Ryerson has faced its own problems with anti-Semitism on campus, including a high-profile case of washroom graffiti and the defacement of a Jewish religious structure (a Succoth) set up outside Kerr Hall two years ago.
“There has been an enormous amount of time and energy spent on campuses by the Palestinian side. They have made it one of their priority issues,” said Simon Rosenblum, director of public policy and Israel affairs for the Canadian Jewish Congress. “If that’s going to be a major battle area, then we will have to work harder on representing Israel’s side by taking the initiative instead of simply responding to events.”
According to co-founder of a high-powered direct action organization dedicated to promoting the Israeli cause on North American campuses, a combination of anti-Semitic behavior and effective pro-Palestinian activism on campuses illustrate the need for a clear and simple pro-Israeli voice to take initiate among the students.
Upstart Activist, the Israel-based organization that created the posters and made them available to anyone with a modem and a printer, is one of the groups leading that charge. They are unapologetic about the posters challenging content.
“If these posters are disturbing to people over there who are untouched by this conflict, I don’t have a problem with that,” said Upstart Activist co-founder Eric Esses. “It is happening over here right now. It would be an unthinkable tragedy against civilization if it started happening in North America as well, but then people might realize that these [suicide bombings] are war crimes.”
Esses denied that the posters were intended to be racist in any way.
“We’re not talking about the picture of an Arab boy. We live in a multicultural society and we all benefit from that,” he said. “The problem is that he has got a stick of dynamite strapped to his head and he’s saying ‘let’s go kill some Israelis.’”
The Middle East situation is so complex and sensitive, Esses admits, that the battle for the opinion of North American students can come down to who can best simplify the issue in a few words or a quick photo, something he acknowledges Palestinian groups have done exceptionally well.
“It’s critical, and it takes a long time. Our side is not an easy soundbite, but the Palestinians have boiled it down to one word … occupation.”
The public relations battle between the Israeli and Palestinian causes has been fought tooth and nail, word for word and nearly as fiercely as some of the skirmishes between the two sides of the conflict.
Former CBC Middle East correspondent Neil MacDonald faced accusations of bias in 2002 when he referred to suicide bombers in the Jewish state as ‘Islamic militants’ instead of ‘terrorists’ in reports from the region.
“[CNN correspondents] constantly refer to innocuous ‘stone-throwing’ by Palestinian kids, instead of calling them what they really are: rocks,” complained a Jerusalem Post letter to the editor in 2001.
Dozens of reports, from groups on both sides of the dispute, accuse the North American media of favouring the other side.
Both Esses and Blum point towards a need for new tactics from the pro-Israeli side.
Israel’s strategy has been largely reactive, they say, throwing stones (or rocks) at the media after a perceived falsity or slight. They key to gaining disputed campus territories will be proactive information campaigns, like those encouraged by Upstart Activist, to put out information about Israel irrespective of claims made by Palestinian material.
“What we need to do doesn’t negate the message of the Palestinians, but presents a clear voice for what’s happening in a way that students can identify with,” Esses says. “[We need campaigns that] are not reactive. That element of reactivism was a gut reaction to serious slander about Israel. Reactive campaigning can degenerate into a shouting match. We don’t want that.
“You need a definite approach to stop the attacks against you … Those posters are attempting to stem that tide.”
Canadian Arab groups, however, don’t think Israel has been staging a reactive campaign. Nor do they believe that they Israeli idea of direct action is comparable to what Palestinian groups have been doing.
“What Palestinian activists are doing is using direct action within a human rights framework,” says Rula Sharkawi, director of communications for the Canadian Arab Federation. “What [Upstart Activist] is doing is using the media and propaganda to demonize the other side and spread fear and hatred.
“I can’t believe that the Jewish community has been reactive until now. They’re being very proactive. This is just another tactic.”
The posters are available for download on the Upstart Activist Web site. RyeSAC President Ken Marciniec said he wouldn’t speculate on whether they’d be approved if any of them were to be submitted.
“There’s been no position taken by RyeSAC,” on either side of the conflict, he maintains, though he thinks that sticking up unapproved posters was “really sneaky.”
The public relations battle on campus “has a lot to do with the power dynamic,” Marciniec says. “One groups is a country [with] an army, and the other group is portrayed as guerillas.
“It’s hard to find much sense in either side. But people keep dying.”