Hillel brings pro-Israel speaker Olga Meshoe to campus

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Olga Meshoe remarks aim to counter the narrative that Israel operates as an apartheid state. COURTESY PHOTO / HILLEL

April 17, 2018, students from the College of William and Mary’s Hillel chapter invited the CEO of Defend, Embrace, Invest, Support Israel Olga Meshoe to speak at an event in Morton Hall. Meshoe, who does not support the movement to call Israel an apartheid state, discussed her involvement in speaking out against the movement and responded to Students for Justice in Palestine’s Israeli Apartheid Week, which occurred March 26-30.

Originally, the event was co-sponsored by the College’s Africana studies program; however, this sponsorship was dropped. Africana studies Program Director Artisia Green declined to comment on this decision.

The talk began with Meshoe’s discussion of the use of the word apartheid to describe the state of Israel, which she deemed inappropriate.

“What I think is very interesting and in fact very sad is if you do in fact look at history, the type of verbiage, the type of rhetoric, the terminology that’s used to try and evoke emotions is the same type of tool that was used back in the day that currently is used now by colonialists, by terrorists in order to intimidate so they can silence, and frankly, it’s also a form of oppression.”

“What I think is very interesting and in fact very sad is if you do in fact look at history, the type of verbiage, the type of rhetoric, the terminology that’s used to try and evoke emotions is the same type of tool that was used back in the day that currently is used now by colonialists, by terrorists in order to intimidate so they can silence, and frankly, it’s also a form of oppression,” Meshoe said.

Meshoe, discussing Israel’s relationship with the countries of Africa, said that Israel was involved in the affairs of multiple African countries from the 1950s to the 1970s. According to Meshoe, these countries then were forced to cut ties with Israel after pressure from Egypt, bribery from outside countries, pressure from pro-Soviet regimes and pressure from Arab and Muslim countries, which then resulted in these countries’ economic declines, as she believed Israel had become a key partner in the African continent’s prosperity.

Meshoe then turned her attention to unnamed organizations at the College who she said had been trying to portray her in a way that did not fit who she was, and asked them what they had been doing to help solve some of Africa’s problems as she talked about the issue of slave trading.

“You can find yourself, a healthy African man, as a slave in broad daylight for a whole $200,” Meshoe said. “And what does the world do? Apart from having a social media campaign … that lasted a whole two weeks, maybe three weeks, the world says nothing.”

While she acknowledged that the state of Israel is not perfect, she feels that the negative attention paid to Israel takes away from pressing problems in African countries.

“But to demonize her in the way that she is being [demonized] and in so, also in that sense, turn attention away from what’s going on [in Africa], you better believe that it gets me angry, because who cares about us?” Meshoe said.

Meshoe said that although Palestinian refugees are the highest-funded refugees in the world, it doesn’t make sense that the condition of the Palestinian refugees has not improved and suggested that this might be linked to leadership.

“Over $1 billion is the budget for [the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees, which is specifically set up to take care of the refugees,” Meshoe said. “… Where does the money go to? The [Palestinian Liberation Organization], the highest-funded nonprofit organization.”

The PLO’s chairman Mahmoud Abbas was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, designated to end in 2009, but still maintains his leadership position. Meshoe said that she was concerned with how differently dictatorship is perceived in African countries.

“So why is the world not calling him out and saying what he is — a dictator?” Meshoe said. “What happens when you look at Africa’s leaders who don’t want to get out of power, what does the world do? You call my leaders dictators — and they are. So why aren’t we holding the Palestinian leadership to the same account? We aren’t — why? Because the world has been able to take this nation called Israel and have the world only focus on Israel so that they can continue to suffer.”

When asked a question about why Israel would not allow the approximately 750,000 Palestinian refugees at the time, now numbered at over five million, who were created after the 1948 and later 1967 wars, back into Israel, Meshoe addressed the unique definition applied to Palestinian refugees, who, according to Meshoe, are born into refugee status. She then theorized why Israel would not want to allow these refugees to cross back over its borders.

“If [the Israeli government was] going to say five million people can go into Israel, and all of us five million are speaking the same language or similar language, and our language is, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,’ what’s going to happen when they step into that state?” Meshoe said. “There will be no Jewish state.”

Students for Justice in Palestine Executive Board member Layanne Abu Bader ’21, who attended the talk, said the members of her organization believed the event was conservative and knew that before they attended based on information they had gathered about the speaker’s viewpoints beforehand.

“I came because I wanted to hear what was being said and then wanted to honestly put pressure on the people talking because I have heard their standpoints before and many of them were not very factual or lacked any evidence, and a lot of her points today also lacked evidence and was very generalized which is why I tried to ask as many questions as I could,” Abu Bader said.

Abu Bader said she and Meshoe engaged in a good conversation, but said that she believed Meshoe’s stance was biased and that she found some of her comments regarding Palestinians offensive.

“The things that she did say about Palestinians were offensive in a lot of parts when she said that the five million Palestinians who are refugees shouldn’t be allowed in because they want to kill Israelis and she used the terrorist excuse way more often than she should have. It made me feel uncomfortable because I am Palestinian and it does not reflect how I believe and I didn’t like the rhetoric that was being used at this past events.”

“The things that she did say about Palestinians were offensive in a lot of parts when she said that the five million Palestinians who are refugees shouldn’t be allowed in because they want to kill Israelis and she used the terrorist excuse way more often than she should have,” Abu Bader said. “It made me feel uncomfortable because I am Palestinian and it does not reflect how I believe and I didn’t like the rhetoric that was being used at this past events.”

Abu Bader said that, despite Meshoe’s presentation, her view had not changed, and that Israel should be seen as an apartheid state.

“I’ve never believed it was as bad as it was in South Africa obviously, but Israel’s laws do fit the definition of apartheid — there are laws that segregate Palestinians from Israelis, even if it’s not on the bus, they segregate the communities, they make it harder for them to vote, especially in the West Bank it’s even worse then because they don’t have Israeli citizenship,” Abu Bader said. “The fact that she flat out just stated that it’s not apartheid without giving an example was not helpful to the argument.”