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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

Fighting the War on Campus

The evening starts with an opening question: why are fewer than 20% of the people who show up to on-campus dialogue groups Arab? This is the beginning of an event at York University, designed to engineer conversation. From the Jews overwhelmingly felt like there was far more social pressure on their Arab counterparts to not engage; for Jews, in some circles this had become de rigeur. From many of the Arab students, the answer boiled down to one thing: that they would be called “race traitors” (as many already had been), or be seen as letting the side down. In a word, that to participate would be seen as “normalizing” Israel. But isn’t the point of dialogue a level of normalization? Doesn’t the peace process (both in the Middle East and on campus) require it? 

This dynamic is not particular to York University; across North America, the level of rhetoric and anger on campus has put many Jewish students into a precarious position. This is a unique experience compared to other conflicts in the recent past. Here in Canada, instances of antisemitism on campus perhaps have not drawn the public eye as much as events like the projection of ‘Glory to our Martyrs’ on a GWU building and similar instances that have crossed many a moral and political line. But that doesn’t make it any less insidious. An alarming trend in this contemporary war has been the wholesale abandoning of the pretence that anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitic in nature, particularly by beginning targeted attacks on Hillel, the on-campus Jewish community organization. In the ahistorical nonsense that was the ‘Toolkit on Palestine’ at York, the writers referenced Hillel as an example of “Zionist cultural institutions” that represent York’s complicity. I worked for Hillel once. My job entirely focused on creating Jewish cultural experiences and bringing a lot of sick kids chicken soup. But this is far from just a York problem. At UBC, the Alma Mater Society (AMS) raised a referendum calling for, among other things, the eviction of Hillel from campus. Thankfully, it was rejected. 

But this is the tip of the iceberg. Ontario students are being subject to a continuous level of harassment for their Jewish identification. Hillel professionals report mezuzot regularly ripped down from students’ rooms in the dorms, images of swastikas shoved under their doors, and social media attacks for daring to be Jewish. To say nothing of the experience of Jews in Montreal, particularly at Concordia. I’m a high school teacher, and a number of my students have declared that they will not be publicly identifying as Jewish on campus next year — to anyone — entirely out of fear.  

This week also marks the beginning of the annual “Israeli Apartheid Week,” an invention that originated at the University of Toronto. The very name indicates something very problematic about the level of rhetoric and lack of nuance at play in how the war on campus plays out. By conflating the extremely complicated history and nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict with South Africa’s apartheid government, the creators aimed to frame it as a moral one with unqualified international condemnation.

Students in front of the JDUC at Queen’s University, 7 March 2024. Part of Israel Apartheid Week. Taken by author.

At Queen’s University, as we speak, students are holding a “die-in” outside of the JDUC (student services building), co-opting the red and white “kidnapped” posters with “murdered” ones referencing people from Gaza. When I was a student there, IAW featured a banner commemorating the Palestinian “Shoah,” the specifically Hebrew word for the Holocaust. There is something purposeful about taking symbols of Jewish suffering and co-opting them for something different that demonstrates the level of antisemitism and tribalism that is at play in this particular campus war.

It was in this climate that the group Bridging the Gap was born, the result of a hive-mind of Jewish and Palestinian students who believe that having difficult conversations with the aim of reaching understanding is the only way forward. A panel that I attended framed the group as upending the concept of the “safe space” into a “brave space,” where people could engage on core issues and are encouraged to be their authentic selves — albeit respectfully. It has tremendous buy-in from the faculty of both Jewish and Islamic studies on campus, as well as York administration (who, for all of the reputation that York has, is one of the most vocal administrations in fighting the wave of on-campus antisemitism). What is less clear is how much buy-in it gets from students on campus. 

York University. Taken by author.

When the group originally began to advertise itself, it put up a poster with an Israeli and Palestinian flag joined together with the tagline, “There is a better way together,” offering free pizza and difficult conversation. Within the day, the posters were ripped down — or, specifically, the Israeli flags were ripped off the posters. When they put up a second series of posters, leaning into the pizza theme (although they accidentally used an image with pepperoni on it, amusing as traditionally neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork) those were summarily ripped down as well. They persisted. They have had a number of dialogue events, relatively well-attended (albeit mostly by Jews) and have a number of fiery personalities who debate in public. One hopes that dialogue really can chart a path forward, and I am immensely impressed with the students who are on this brave journey. And yet. If the posters themselves are so problematic that they are ripped down, if the very idea of two groups sitting down together to have difficult conversations is so offensive, doesn’t that betray a fundamental starting point at least among a critical mass that indicates a commitment to no normalization, no recognition, no peace?

In an attempt to reduce said tribalism, groups like Bridging the Gap have sprung up, but I wonder if mechanisms at play in the war in Gaza simply play out in miniature in the war on campus. Much like the Israel-Hamas war, almost all of the onus for peace and conciliation seems to fall on the Jews. As this war continues down its nightmarish course, the calls for peace are entirely directed at one of two combatant groups. Israel is vilified on the international stage for not agreeing to a ceasefire, despite the fact that a ceasefire was also in place on October 6th and Hamas has repeatedly expressed its commitment to repeat these massacres. There are not many clarion calls for Hamas to surrender and release the hostages. There are even fewer for Hamas to surrender, despite it being a terrorist organization who has dragged its people into a war that has resulted in many thousands dying, who continue to hold female hostages as sex slaves, who cares nothing for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. Why is peace the onus of the party who did not even start the war? Power dynamics, of course, along with some good old-fashioned antisemitism. 

It often feels like it is these dynamics that play out in any attempt to mitigate the fighting on campus as well. Jewish students often enter groups and conversations about peace with a series of caveats: that they accept the rights of Palestinian self-determination, that they too are critical of Israel, etc. Which would be fine if it were reciprocated, but from conversations with students, it doesn’t always appear that it is. At a panel I attended, one Palestinian member said that his reason for being a part of the group was to “educate” — which feels problematic, particularly when every other member (including a Palestinian woman) said that their goal was to create some form of common-ground together. Groups like this have gained attention in the media as well, but many of the interviews seem to focus on Jewish students who describe their awareness of a different history and narrative, or their willingness to re-litigate the history of the region. Isn’t the point of these groups for both to understand each other better, not only for one side to make all of the compromises? At universities across North America, groups focused on dialogue and peace are overwhelmingly stacked with Jewish students. And across the board, many Jewish students feel like they have to start with a series of conciliatory statements that don’t seem to be required from their Palestinian brethren. 

Back to the opening question of the debate. Perhaps this lack of conciliatory statements are not required of Palestinian students because their very presence is the ultimate expression of this. I wonder if students were expected to start with a condemnation of Hamas’ attack, whether attendance would fluctuate. Maybe it’s a result of the old adage, two Jews, three opinions, but no member of the Jewish community is likely to get death threats or be called a ‘race traitor’ for their presence at a dialogue group. This overwhelmingly does not seem to be the case for Arabs who may be interested in a form of debate and reconciliation, for fear of seeming to normalize Israel’s existence. But that indicates the fundamental issue with this group, among others. If you are afraid to even show up and be seen to have a conversation, what real hope is there for peace? 

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.
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