At York University, things are beginning to change. Students who are tired of an environment hostile to discussion about issues relevant to the middle east are starting to create their own coalition of those who are pro-peace. Instead of allowing groups such as Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) to dominate the conversation, students are holding events that feature two-way dialogue, education, and discussion.
While the University fails to address the discomfort of Zionists and Jewish students on campus, the York Federation and groups such as SAIA subscribe to a narrative that is clearly anti-Israel, and often refuse to engage in dialogue when asked to comment on how we can work towards peace. Groups such as SAIA continually insist that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is the best way to create justice, despite the movement’s use of explicit language to end international support for Israel.
This narrative fuels a hostile environment and renders two-way dialogue impossible. But even worse is that, despite the undeniable fact that BDS gets us no closer to peace, groups such as SAIA seem unwilling to engage in rigorous discussion with anyone that they disagree with; this is evident by their lack of desire to understand the harmful effects that BDS has on students, their support of revoking JNF’s charitable status, and their condemnation of the Canadian government’s support of Israel.
Around the world, many individuals still choose to shun dialogue and two-way communication. On an international level, Israeli athletes were banned entry into Malaysia for the 2019 World Paralympic Swimming Championships. Within North America, students are frequently fed one-sided anti-Israel material at a high school and university level, such as the instances in Newton Massachusetts. A former New York University (NYU) student proudly tweeted his desire for “all zionists to die,” and an Israeli flag was burned during a celebration in Washington Square Park. Other bigoted actions include San Francisco State University professor Rabab Ibrahim Abdullhadi’s declaration that “Zionists are NOT welcomed” on the campus. Locally, in Toronto, an individual claimed on Twitter that “Jews run this [university],” suggesting that the university cares only about money, and not about students, in regard to the university’s decision to end a weather watch this past March.
The Anti Defamation League, a group dedicated to fighting not just the unfair malice against Jewish people, but also for the “secure justice and fair treatment to all,” states that BDS campaigns “employ antisemitic rhetoric and narratives” to target individuals who identify as Jewish or Zionist. Perhaps York University needs an organization that fights against hate and a group that will engage in dialogue not just for the sake of justice, but for the sake of a peaceful environment in which students are not afraid to participate in academic discussion and inquiry.
The mission and values of the Anti Defamation League include everything a university should. Hostile action and a lack of dialogue are antithetical to academic inquiry, and foster an environment that prevents students of all faiths and religions from celebrating their diversity. While there are many at York who choose more verbal assaults and physical intimidation tactics (as Israeli activists have been treated in the past), some groups on campus make an effort to challenge the one-sided narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create conversations. Some students and cultural groups have decided to start their own clubs, take initiative, and host events that bring us together. Bravely, these individuals are joining forces, going where no York University student group has gone before and addressing both sides of the argument and take part in creating a new narrative.
An example of an event that fosters open conversation, by creating a comfortable and peaceful environment, was the Intercultural Cafe. At this event, LOGOS Christian Community, Hillel York, Hindu Students at York, and the Intercultural Dialogue Institute joined together for an evening of performances and interfaith dialogue. Performances included poems and songs of different backgrounds and cultures, while snacks such as bourekas and samosas were provided. After the performances, people sat around tables, enjoyed the food, and asked each other questions, such as “how do you practice your faith,” and “how did religion play a part in your upbringing?”
These events are a critical part of changing the narrative at York University. They enable students and faculty alike to come together, take action, and speak openly about strategies to resolve conflict in the Middle East. The administrators and other students at our institute may choose not to engage in conflict resolution talks, but that doesn’t mean we should as well; right?