As fall rapidly approaches, Canadian students are preparing for first semester to commence. The typical student may be excited to catch up with their friends, return to their university environment, or even look forward to starting the year with a clean slate by putting last year behind them. Pro-Israel students on the other hand, feel as if they may be returning to a war of words to demonize Israel on their campuses. Although the Israel/Palestine conflict may seem far away for most, pro-Israel students are fighting a propaganda war to combat falsehoods being disseminated against Israel. The instigators of these falsehoods may be individuals on student unions, anti-Israel faculty and/or anti-Israel student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Students for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and Students against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). I am proud to write that I am one of these pro-Israel students who is in this war of words dedicated to defend Israel for the long haul. I have been a staunch Zionist from the time I could understand, and my views on Zionism and loyalty toward Israel have become even stronger over the years.
When I came to Ryerson University in fall of 2013, I naively thought the students were accepting of one another, and this mistakenly lead me not to be as involved with Israel advocacy on campus as I am now. I strongly believed that my student union wanted what was in the best interest of the student population because their campaigns seemed harmless (e.g. lowering tuition fees or supporting a healthier environment). To my surprise, in April 2014, the most infamous form of propaganda, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) arrived at my campus. Divestment from Israel was being endorsed by all members of my student union leadership, a group of individuals who are members of SJP, (Students for Justice in Palestine) or supporters of their positions. I was confused. Shouldn’t a student union represent all students who are required to pay fees equally? The Canadian Federation of Students, which represents all Canadian student unions, had endorsed BDS in the province of Ontario.
When the Ryerson Student Union endorsed Divestment, it created an acceptable environment for hatred towards Jewish and pro-Israel students. Instead of students openly calling Jewish Students “Dirty Jews”, they were called “Dirty Zionists”. Groups that were not registered with the Ryerson Students Union, for instance,” Queers against Israeli Apartheid”, were allowed on campus and spit on students who tried to conduct an open dialogue. The President of Students Supporting Israel (a pro-Israel student club) at Ryerson was spat on for holding an Israeli flag while she was working on a collaborative project with the Hellenic Students Association. A map of Israel was desecrated by students on campus right after BDS was passed. The Ryerson Students Union also gave additional funding for joint events with the SJP because “that is what the students wanted”. One of the more atrocious acts was when the student union hired Aamer Raham, the controversial ‘comedian’ for “Ryerson’s Week of Welcome”. Raham is known for being openly anti-Israel. How dare the student union use student dollars to promote an environment full of bigotry and hatred?
While reading this, you may ask yourself why pro-Israel students haven’t tried going to administration. I can’t speak for all pro-Israel students across the country and tell you we have tried to go to administration multiple times, but I can tell you that many of us have done that. The student union is an entity that administration has no power or control over. Unfortunately, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is the only entity with control over all federated student unions across Canada. Student unions who try to leave the CFS are automatically faced with a lawsuit. This creates a vicious cycle, which no individual student union can escape or avoid.
After completing my first two years at Ryerson University, I can say that I finally have hope for the future. A new student slate was elected and they were not handpicked by the CFS. This slate of individuals vowed to be apolitical on international conflicts as any student union should be. The pro-Israel students are hoping that the new student union will make the environment less hostile on campus. Most universities across Canada have not been as fortunate and are continuously fighting against their student union’s bias against Israel.
Pro-Israel students across the country hope that there is some way administrations can play a more active role in the future to combat hatred and relentless propaganda to demonize Israel. Students should not have to face propaganda campaigns like divestment from Israel on their campuses. Jewish and pro-Israel students should come to campus like every other student and not have to worry about divisive, hateful, and highly-politicized movements directed at their homeland.
Rebecca Katzman is a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow and Hasbara Fellow for Ryerson University