Canada’s Jewish Community May be Following the Wrong Path in Battle Against Anti-Semitism

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is the umbrella organization for the multitude of Jewish voices in Canada. CIJA believes that prioritizing the common shared values between Canada and Israel while downplaying the negative attacks against Jews and Israel, will best serve our community.

I’m not so sure.

I decided to write this article after I read the following comment on a blog about campus life in CIJA’s on-line blog, The Exchange:

“Now isn’t that just peachy? Jewish students have so many opportunities on campus to live the joy of their Jewish heritage. Over the years however, we are advised first hand or via reports that anti-Israel/anti-Semitic Muslim student associations events have caused Jewish students to be intimidated, fearful and insecure. Where has Hillel been on this? Where has CIJA been? Where have Jewish Federations and Jewish community councils been in this regard? Usually nowhere to be seen.”

So I contacted student leaders: Aidan Fishman, University of Toronto; Zane Colt from Carleton/Ottawa; Jessica Cherkasov, York University; and students from Windsor and Calgary, not all of whom wished their names to be published. That’s sad.

Yes, the atmosphere on campus this year is less anti-Semitic than years before, especially compared to York University, 2009, when Jewish students were held hostage in Hillel because of anti-Semitic vitriol. But I’m hearing discontent from the front-line workers regarding the type of responses by the Jewish community to anti-Semitic activities on campus.

As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Zane Colt said

“It’s about time we rethink the importance of a national, grassroots framework for on-campus advocacy in Canada. Students are looking… to bond with colleagues from different schools, to access on a student-run support system, and for networking opportunities in Canada and beyond. This is more than our local Hillel can supply.”

Bill Narvey, a Calgary pro-Israel activist noted

“…there is a chronic problem of anti-Israelism, that often crosses into antisemitism on campuses here in Canada and more so down in the states.  The problem seemingly is growing worse.  Whatever efforts are made by Hillel and its funding/directing agencies, be it here or in the states, appear not to be up to the challenge.  Whatever the core reasons for this situation, they likely are systemic for Hillel and Jewish community leadership in Canada and the U.S.”

A Hillel representative from Calgary explained:

“There are a lot of misconceptions about Hillel. Hillel is not an exclusively Israel advocacy program. It is a Jewish engagement program which has many different goals, including Israel advocacy. As an organization, Hillel has been very successful in the last few years in engaging students in Jewish programming, fund-raising, social action, etc.”

Yet, according to Zane Colt, our organizations are failing; like Canadian Federation of Jewish Students (CFJS), “a coast-to-coast-to-coast network of students blending Jewish pride and Canadian identity (or Jewish identity and Canadian pride) and advocating for Israel on university campuses.”

I’d like to know what happened.

I sense from our future leaders that CIJA is paternalistic, using the “excuse of needing to keep strategies secret” which keeps the next generation of leaders out of the loop on responses to anti-Semitic protests on campus. There’s frustration when events like Israel Peace Week are not sponsored because they’re deemed “as controversial or ‘upping the ante’ on campus” or because of “Hillel’s fear of what the anti-Semites like Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights would say…”

Israel Peace Week was a success at York University.  Jessica Cherkasov: “There’s still a strong sense of hatred on campus, after BDS was passed last year, a toxic environment was formed,” but this year Israel Peace Week showcased “Israel as a beautiful democracy, with a lot to offer.We closed Israel Peace Week with WordSwap”    a grassroots group established in 2012 by Orit Tepper, a young Israeli woman who wanted to start an open discussion in Canada about Israel.

Orit had been present at York University in 2009. I asked her why the name “WordSwap.”  She said “because it is an exchange of ideas-words.” Her goal is to “bring the peace that is on Israeli campuses to Canada.”

Think about that. An Israeli, who attended university in Canada and then continued in Israel, felt safer in Israel than she did here in Canada.

WordSwap seems to be successful and well-liked by students. At Carleton, the IDF WordSwap volunteers spoke with Arab student leaders in Arabic. Zane said “This is the kind of dialogue we are looking for between Jewish and Arab students on campus, not the hateful propaganda we have seen in years past.”

At UofT, a WordSwap  volunteer (Druze, Arab IDF veteran) argued forcefully with the anti-Israel presenters, showing that Israel is not the anti-Arab state that they claim it to be.

Orit was at Windsor University, just after hate crimes had been committed during the BDS referendum debate. She spoke to the Jewish students who had tried to prevent the BDS vote from taking place. They told her they felt alone and isolated on campus and had been “harassed and jarred walking down the halls,” too afraid to leave the Law Building. Orit offered to bring WordSwap to the campus despite the concerns expressed for their safety.

Orit said, “The few students who dared to join us ended up staying with us on campus for hours, and said that we were the first and only people who had come out to support them on campus during their ordeal.”

Aidan (UofT) spoke highly of StandWithUs an  organization committed to Israel advocacy, creating a  network of Zionists across the world providing  students with the resources and confidence to be the leaders of today, and inspire the generations of tomorrow.  “I was happy about the support received from Jewish and pro-Israel groups, especially StandWithUs… we put up the gigantic series of pro-Israel banners from StandWithUs… These banners educated students on themes such as Israeli Arabs, Jerusalem and Israeli Multiculturalism. Most students simply passed by and read the posters without directly interacting with us.”

Zane Colt summed up the feelings of his peers:

“I think that Jewish student leaders should have a seat at the table with meetings between the Jewish community and the administration, to better understand the relationship between the two, offer support, and demonstrate a visible presence of Jewish student leadership on campus. Concurrently, I think that students should be better trained to deal with anti-Israel sentiment on campus too. Our narrative of peace and dialogue needs to resonate with students as much as it does with the administration, and students should be the ones doing the talking.”

It’s time for the Jewish community across Canada to pay more attention to our students at high school and on university campuses to ensure that the programmes these students, our First Responders deem most helpful, like StandWithUS and WordSwap, obtain the appropriate funding.

It’s well and good for our organizations to work behind the scenes, but based on the concerns of our students it’s time to rethink CIJA’s conviction that protesting attracts negative attention and can increase violence. This attitude is sadly reminiscent of too many Jewish groups leading up to the Holocaust.

As I said in the opening, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

If we haven’t learned that lesson then SHAME ON US.

About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "