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Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid

Andrew Hugill
Date Published: 
April 09, 2008

The Coaltion Against Israel Apartheid (CAIA) is an alliance of all Palestine solidarity groups in Toronto that first came together in November 2006 to oppose a visit by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. CAIA The success of the demonstration against Sharon's visit (even though he didn't end up attending), was the result of a huge leap in organizing as the various groups put aside past debates and animosities and took a sincere anti-sectarian approach to focus on the work to be accomplished. Following the demonstration, Palestinian activists played a key role in holding together the groups involved in a more permanent coalition around the 2005 call from Palestine for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) which provides the strategic focus for the Palestinian led international solidarity campaign against Israeli apartheid. As the call is action oriented, well defined, and authoritative it prevented the long and divisive theoretical debates on 'Basis of Unity' that most groups focus on during their formation. The July 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions was issued in Palestine and signed by 170 organizations. The demands are: an end to the Israeli occupation of all Arab and Palestinian lands, the release of all Arab and Palestinian political prisoners, full equality for all citizens of Israel, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands from which they were expelled from 1947 to the present day. These demands also form the CAIA Basis of Unity. The call for BDS was the needed framework to pull various groups together, to give concrete actions for people to take, and to discuss how people outside Palestine are implicated in what is happening and have a responsibility to act. The strategic demands of boycott, divestment and sanctions help to illustrate the powerful ties between North American / European capital and the Zionist state. The comparison with South Africa is not simply a theoretical framework to adopt, but also a model of action. CAIA Organisational development In its first major initiative CAIA organized the first conference in Canada around the call for BDS titled "The Stuggle Continues: Boycotting Israeli Apartheid". It was held in Toronto from October 6-8 2006 and brought together over 600 activists around one challenge: How can we move global BDS campaigns against Israel forward? Smaller workshops at the conference developed strategies and cultivated networks around specific sectors of work such as: labor, campus, community organizing and faith-based groups. The committees of CAIA came out of these workshops. These committees initially carried out educational work in their different sectors, for examples on campuses Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) started to take up the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, inside unions Labor for Palestine focused on the conditions Palestinian workers were facing and the effects of the siege. By organising on a sectoral basis and in a non sectarian way CAIA has been able to make huge gains in the breadth, depth and impact of Palestinian solidarity work in Toronto. Having a focus on BDS, clearly defined by the call from Palestine, aligns the work of CAIA with the international Palestinian led campaign and provides goals which transcend local sectarian divisions. Labour for Palestine The CAIA Labour committee, Labour for Palestine, is a network of rank and file labour activists involved in building the BDS movement within Canadian unions. Following the historic "Resolution 50" of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Ontario (CUPE Ontario) in support of boycott in May 2006, Labour for Palestine has worked to support the CUPE resolution and help CUPE members carry out rank-and-file education within the union. During 2007, over 25 training sessions were carried out in workplaces, conventions and council meetings across the province. Thousands of CUPE members have received educational materials on Israeli apartheid and participated in these training workshops. Other developments in the labour sector were the inclusion of a commitment to internal education on Palestine in the "statement of principles" arising from the 2007 CUPE National Congress and the bringing forward of resolutions in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. Although the latter initiative was blocked it succeeded in raising public awareness of the issues involved. In March 2007, Labour for Palestine published a 100-page book entitled Labour For Palestine: A Reader for Unionists and Activists. The book was launched at the Steelworkers Hall in Toronto, and contains discussion on the CUPE resolution, educational material for unionists and workers on the history of the Palestinian struggle and the situation of Palestinian workers. This has been an invaluble educational and training tool for establishing international solidairty committees in unions and promoting Palestine solidarity work. Labor for Palestine is currently planning an organizing conference for trade unionists at the end of May to develop a coordinated cross-union strategy for BDS work. Students Against Israeli Apartheid On the student front, SAIA has been actively organising educational campaigns on campuses - most notably through Israeli Apartheid Week which has greatly expanded, not only in Toronto but internationally, where this year it was held in over twenty cities worldwide. This education provided the groundwork and momentum which resulted in the first ever official debate on academic boycott of Israeli institutions at a Canadian University. Held at Ryerson University in November 2007 the debate brought the issues of Academic Boycott and BDS to a large live and television audience. Demands for similar debates on other campuses have been legitimized by this ground-breaking event which has changed the political landscape in the University sector. SAIA activists have paid particular attention to maintaining a constant presence on campuses through tabling, leafleting and postering as well as building coaltions with other progressive student groups and unions. SAIA is also consciously attempting not to replicate the problem of most student groups that collapse after a few of the main organizers graduate - so there are constant training sessions that involve all the student members, workshops range from Israeli Apartheid 101, to public speaking and tabling. In another landmark intitiative Highschoolers Against Israeli Apartheid (HAIA) held their inaugural conference in Toronto in February. This is the first formal gathering of anti Israeli apartheid school students in Canada. It was organised by high school students who have been carrying out education campaigns in Toronto schools for the past twelve months. Working in the highschools sector has provided incredible momentum for the BDS campaign and insereted a new creative energy - the highschoolers have taken on banner and poster production for the campaign. CAIA Educational and Boycott Campaigns Screening films to the general public has been a key part of CAIA's outreach strategy from the beginning. The size and diversity of audiences increased dramatically when film showings were moved from campus lecture halls to a popular Toronto documentary movie theatre. Experience gained from this work has enabled the first ever Toronto Palestine Film Festival to be organised for October 2008. Currently, CAIA is engaged in a boycott campaign of Chapters and Indigo- the largest bookstore chain in Canada. The campaign demands an end to the financial support offered by the majority owners of Chapters and Indigo to Heseg - Foundation for Lone Soldiers which provides scholarships and other support to former 'Lone Soldiers' in the Israeli military'. Lone Soldiers' are individuals who don't live in Israel, have no family in Israel but decide to join the Israeli military. Despite little coverage in the mainstream press, the campaign has provided an excellent platform to educate the general public on Israeli Apartheid and BDS through the distribution of over 50,000 leaflets at pickets across Canada and coverage in the alternative media. Future Directions Over the last couple of years the concept of "Israeli Apartheid" has come from the fringes into the mainstream consciousness. The debate, in both mainstream and progressive circles has moved on from whether or not Israeli Apartheid exists to the questions like "how bad is it?" and the extent to which it is analogous to South African apartheid. CAIA played a significant role in causing this shift - on the local level at least. Now CAIA is directing its energies towards moving public consciousness and acceptance of BDS from the fringes to the centre. Currently the front of this battle is on the University campuses where a space to debate academic boycott has been opened up. In this work the use of BDS in the struggle against South African apartheid provides not only a well known and accepted historic precedent but also an arsenal of strategies and tactics which can be adapted to the current circumstances. In addition to consolidating and extending its presence in the Labour and student sectors CAIA will be intensifying its work with educators in schools and universities to support them in their efforts to implement academic boycott and BDS in their institutions.
Andrew Hugill is an organizer with the Coaliton Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA)