It has been a recent trend in the Toronto Jewish community to hold various student panels that discuss Jewish life on campus. Given that anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide it is no surprise that many students would like to know if that same precedent exists on all three university campuses in Toronto. Many have specifically called into question the activities at York University given its notorious reputation of being a hotbed of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity.
When this question arises, there is almost always at least one Jewish student who claims “there is no anti-Semitism on campus” or claim that much of what is being reported is an exaggeration. Students who give this response make me question whether or not we are discussing the same campus because the York University that I and many of my friends attend is systemically anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. For over ten years Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) have been active on the York University campus through the narrative of social justice and resistance. During this time they have managed to infiltrate many student clubs who have aligned themselves with SAIA and have created a toxic atmosphere for Jewish and pro-Israel clubs on campus. Some of these clubs and unions include: Amnesty International, the LGBT club, the Middle Eastern Students Association (MESA), and worst of all the York Federation of Students (YFS), our student government that has millions of dollars at their disposal to further their and SAIA’s anti-Israel interests.
Just this year SAIA, the core executive of the YFS, and Amnesty International have started a new divestment campaign that specifically singles out York University’s collaboration with foreign weapons companies under the name of YUDIVEST. They have held numerous (not so) silent protests that specifically single out Israel alone for condemnation and do not hold anyone else accountable, despite the fact that it is clearly a two-sided conflict. This creates a very bigoted and inaccurate view of what is going on. Additionally this YU divest coalition refuses to condemn the recent ongoing terror wave in Israel.
And let’s not forget the most recent attempt to get the YFS to remove a mural painting that hangs in the York University student centre. This mural depicts an “activist” holding a rock behind his back overlooking Israeli land with the words peace and justice in various languages. The mural depicts the whole map of Israel painted in the colours of the Palestinian flag. The image depicted in this mural normalizes terrorism and violence as a means of “resistance” against Israelis. This completely rejects the notion of coexistence and peaceful discourse. It is clear that the YU Divest coalition does not want peace. Nor do they believe in a Jewish state considering that the mural only depicts a Palestinian state. Furthermore, the YUDIVEST coalition is simply an offshoot of the greater BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement, which works to single out and discriminate against Israel, the only Jewish state. This mural has been hanging in the student centre for about three years to date. There have been many attempts to convince the YFS to remove the mural including legal action but to no avail. Now that the mural has blown up on social media the mural and its problems are back on the scene. Last week, a major donor to the university, Paul Bronfman, pulled his funding, in response to the lack of action by the university to take down this clearly anti-Semitic painting. It is the responsibility of the YFS to attend to the needs of students. Given the great impact of Bronfman’s action, which directly affects student needs, one would think that the YFS would take down the mural. However, they continue to refuse to do so and are willing to hijack student affairs in order to push their own political agenda.
Given all of this activity, how is it that any student who attends York can claim that there is no anti-Israel or anti-Semitic activity on campus? Is it because anti–Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric have become so normalized at York that they do not even notice it? Or is it because there is a lack of action and apathy that has spread across the Jewish student body? Or, that they are so uninvolved that they have no idea what is going on?
In my opinion, it is a combination of both. It is a trend at commuter schools like York for Jewish students to attend classes and leave right away once their class has finished. Once in a while they may attend a lunch at the Hillel lounge or a class with JLIC but that’s about it.
When one looks at the fact that SAIA has been active for about ten years and you combine it with an apathetic Jewish student body, of course anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric are going to spread. There have been a few students who have taken action to get involved to stop the spread of anti-Israel activity and educate the students who are unaware. These include a number of Hillel and JLIC students and Hasbara at York, an independent, student run, Israel advocacy club that works to educate people about Israel through facts and personal experience. They have done amazing work and through my time at York I have seen some great changes thanks to them. This makes me think about all we could do if more Jewish students were motivated to take action and get involved. There are approximately 4000 Jewish students at York University. If even 100 of us worked to change what our campus is becoming, imagine what we could do.
As part of my own research I decided to ask some students why they don’t want to get involved and they gave a number a reasons including too much work, “I’m tired”, or “I don’t feel confident enough in my knowledge of the truth”- despite the fact that there are plenty of easily accessible training programs available.
It is this apathy that will allow anti-Israel activity to grow until the university will no longer be a safe place for Jewish, Israeli, and pro-Israel students on campus at all. Do we really want our children to avoid university campuses and other institutions because they feel so uncomfortable and targeted for their beliefs and who they are?
Not only can one make a difference and make change on campus by getting involved so that future students will not have to face such bigotry and hatred but in supporting Israel and Jewish life on campus, students will make connections, and learn skills that will stay with them throughout their life. The next time an incoming student asks you about anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity on campus, instead of saying that there is none, or throwing up your hands and saying “it is what is” I encourage and challenge you to get involved, learn about what is going on, and enjoy yourself doing it.