On December 3rd, the students at York University held what was supposed to be a silent protest in the school’s main rotunda to demonstrate against the school’s investiture in products that contribute to war and occupation. Adorned with plenty of Palestinian flags, these protestors chanted and delivered speeches on war and occupation, which has become something of a common occurrence at York.
But beyond the corridor, in a separate room, Hillel@York had set up a table with a giant inflatable chanukiah for a photo booth activity. Needless to say, the Jewish students participating were offended by the demonstration that took place a mere 40 feet away from them. However, the response in the media regarding the events of this day are in desperate need of some clarification and contextualization.
Firstly, it was not an “anti-Chanukah” protest. What the protesters were demonstrating against had nothing to do with Judaism or the Jewish holiday. Such a charge ignores the political nuances of the actual geopolitical tension underpinning this episode. It is somewhat more accurate to call it an “anti-Israel” protest performed by “anti-Israel” students. But even still such an oversimplification amplifies and indicates the problem of a lack of understanding about what is really happening on my campus.
What is missing is the “who”. The protesters in question are certainly “anti-Israel”, but the culprits extend beyond the typical Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). That’s because this was not an “anti-Israel” protest in the name of the BDS movement. This protest was inspired by the “YUDivest” movement, and performed by the “YUDivest Coalition”.
Naturally, SAIA is the leading group of this coalition, but importantly, and this seems to get left out by the Jewish media and by communal workers at York, two other groups are a formally part of this coalition: Amnesty International at York (AIY) and the York Federation of Students (YFS). That last one is very important, because it is the student union that runs the undergraduate clubs and most of student life at York U, a major institutional pillar of support for the BDS/YUDivest movement.
Secondly, what is largely missing is the “why” of these events. Why has BDS been replaced by YUDivest? I’ve been writing about this for months, stating that the pitch to boycott Israel is much less politically attractive than the call to divest from companies that perpetuate war. I mean, aren’t you against war? Of course! So in putting “B” and “S” (no pun intended) on the back burner and focusing on the “D” of “divestment”, the cause to politically isolate Israel now has thousands more potential anti war / pro peace students to join in. I refer to this as the second stage of BDS.
Thirdly, what is not talked about from these events is the breach of process that occurred. Apparently, the space where the protest occurred was booked for a silent protest (yes at York U you book space in order to protest). The protest, from what was told to me by people who were there, was not silent at all. It was characterized by the usual chanting (“divest!”) and self-righteous speeches about Israeli occupation. Students felt disrupted and discomforted not just by the content of what was said, but by the noise level and the protest’s disruptive nature.
The problem is not just the noise; the problem is the double standard. If a Jewish or pro-Israel group pulled a stunt like this, you better believe there would be sanctions handed down by the SCLD (Student Community Leadership and Development) office on that club. Conversely, SAIA seems to get to skirt the rules whenever they feel. They can disrupt classes, harangue people who do not support them, organize violent anti-Jewish mobs, and most obviously and egregiously, promote hated against an identifiable ethnic group of students. Conversely, the Jewish and Israel groups strive to follow the rules and university ordinances. Should we fail to do so, we would be disciplined, and rightly so.
Once again: the fact that students celebrating Chanukah happened to be nearby is entirely irrelevant. The optics of framing it in this way certainly makes for a good story. However it only makes for a disgruntled, emotional reaction that will not translate into an improved, well-informed, more proactive counter-strategy to the hate being perpetrated on campus.
It is also counter-productive. If one wants to characterize this movement, be it BDS or its new proxy, YUDivest, as anti-Semitic, by all means. I certainly do. But do so because of how it unfairly maligns Israel, the Jewish state, calls for a boycott of Israeli goods, services, institutions and people, and how it reverberates into the politicized social exclusion of Jewish students. NOT because a protest and a Chanukah booth happened to occur at the same time.
It is unhelpful, in my opinion, to use this particular flashpoint as an explanation of this movement’s inherent anti-Semitism. The YUDivest agitators did not intend to disturb Jewish students at the Hillel booth (though I’m sure they enjoyed the extra bonus). They intended to further solidify and expand the anti-Israel ideology they have firmly established in the student body. Perhaps if this problem was dealt with factual clarity a decade ago, BDS would not be as entrenched on campus as it us today.
It is not my intention to repudiate the well-meaning intentions of Jewish communal leaders. I just want to draw attention to the facts of the situation at York University, and suggest that pro-Israel students immersed in their advocacy and their own student environment are a valuable source of information about the dynamics on their respective campus.
Understanding the issues and the campus dynamic on a deeper, less artificial level is far more beneficial. The community needs to realize that in a case of BDS so institutionalized at York, the cancer has metastasized into a stronger, more protean force known as the YUDivest movement. It’s a lesson to keep in mind what happens when anti-Semitism is not dealt with. It grows and takes new form; it does not and will never simply ‘go away’.