So much has already been said about this week’s challenging situations at three of Canada’s largest universities – the University of Toronto, McGill University and York University – that I find myself struggling to say something insightful that hasn’t already been heard.
It goes almost without saying that Jewish and pro-Israel students – indeed students of all faiths, ethnicities, beliefs and opinions – should feel safe to be on campus and to express their views. It should also be consensus that university leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the values of respect, tolerance, and thoughtfulness – to say nothing of security – are, as a priority, promoted and protected.
So, what can be said about a Graduate Student Union representative at U of T who refused to support a kosher food campaign on campus because it was being driven by a ‘Zionist’ organization? Or a student newspaper at McGill University that refuses to publish articles or letters in support of Jewish self-determination? Or a group of protestors so enraged by the mere presence of a few reservist soldiers from Israel on a North American speaking tour that the group generated an intimidating protest outside the lecture hall while the Israelis spoke inside?
I spent much of the first decade of the 2000s on university campuses – first as a student completing two degrees, and then as an administrator. I was on one of the most volatile campuses during some of the most difficult and demoralizing times for Jewish students in recent memory. In late 2008, I left campus and began working in advocacy for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) with the goal of turning the tide and making campus life more inclusive, more welcoming, and more respectful. Since that time, in concert with Hillels and other pro-Israel groups from coast to coast, we have made enormous progress.
As pro-Israel advocates supporting Jewish students on campus, we shifted our focus, reframed our strategy, and organized programming aimed at bringing people together. We built meaningful relationships with non-Jewish groups and leaders – even bringing some of them to Israel. We hosted interfaith opportunities and found ways to find common ground.
So much good work, though often incremental and below the radar, has been accomplished and continues today.
What was once seen as acceptable, indeed expected, on campus is today widely condemned.
Without exception, university leaders today are steadfast in their support of Jewish students. They reject the divisive and discriminatory Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israelis. They travel with us to Israel on intensive fact-finding missions to experience Israeli life first-hand and to enhance the Canada-Israel bilateral relationship. They speak out loudly and forcefully against antisemitism and have started to employ its international definition – which includes anti-Zionism – in their public statements and actions.
This week alone, McGill’s administration took steps to compel the McGill Daily to print a letter about Zionism that it had previously refused to publish. York University’s president denounced the intimidating protest that erupted a Jewish event. And, to their credit, under pressure from the community and the administration, the University of Toronto Graduate Students Union retracted their earlier comments, issued a formal apology to Hillel, and committed to undertake antisemitism training.
Today, when issues arise, political leadership across party lines are also standing with us. This week, statements have been issued from every corner of the political sector, including Premiers, Mayors and Members of Parliament, in support of Jewish students.
As this week ends, and we get ready to welcome Shabbat, let us remember both how far we’ve come and how much more work we still have left to do.