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I’m a Zionist, and I’m not your punching bag

A proud McGill alum on her alma mater's new oppressive student culture inhibiting open discussion, and what to do about it

I am a proud graduate of McGill University.  I’m also a Zionist — such a Zionist that after graduation, I left Montreal and moved to Israel for good.

If I were a student at McGill today, I wouldn’t be able to publish these words in the student newspaper, The McGill Daily.

What’s worse, if I were to walk the stately campus of my alma mater, I may be mistaken for a punching bag because of my political views.

That’s because the Daily, the publication I wrote for as a student, decided to ban all Zionist op-eds. More recently, Igor Sadikov, a member of the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU), urged his followers on Twitter to “punch a zionist [sic] today.”

Aside from the criminal nature of the tweet, what disturbs me most about these recent events is that a group of misguided students, in their search for a punching bag, have ended up punching the entire student body in the face. Instead of protesting a so-called oppressive political philosophy in a meaningful way, they bring an oppressive culture to McGill—one that stymies freedom of speech and incites to violence against those who disagree with them.

How has this happened to the cosmopolitan, inclusive campus where I spent my undergraduate years?

Anti-Israel sentiment is not new at McGill or other North American campuses. Students look for a cause, and they find Israel, for better or worse. They don’t want to be perceived as anti-Semites, so thinking they are sophisticated and politically correct, they choose another group to vilify: Zionists.

I find the semantics of this particular scuffle ironic. That’s because I am the first to oppose many Israeli policies — specifically because I’m a Zionist. Like many of my compatriots here, I believe that a viable, democratic Israel doesn’t occupy another people.

Then again, perhaps I’m not the type of Zionist Sadikov and his McGill allies want to hear from, because I’d make a lesser target.

They may be surprised to know that I, too, was a student looking for a cause. In Zionism, I found a philosophy that sought to create a just, egalitarian and pluralistic society. I found an ideological movement to which I belonged as opposed to the liberation movement taking place in my native Quebec which excluded me.

As a first-year student, I took part in a Palestinian-Jewish dialogue group. In the fall of 2000, as violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalated, demonstrations for and against each side overtook the campus. During that time, I gathered hundreds of signatures from my fellow students in support of continued negotiations between Ehud Barak Yasser Arafat.

Things were more optimistic in the late ’90s than they are now. Yet, 14 years since I moved to Israel, I cling to my initial vision of Zionism more fiercely than ever. Precisely because our state of affairs has deteriorated so much, it’s more relevant than ever. I see the spirit of Zionism in the amazing civil society groups and activists here I know and work with, who toil tirelessly to forge a better society for all. I see this same spirit in dialogue and creative thinking, not in empty, divisive rhetoric that ultimately benefits no one.

I also distinguish between the Israeli government’s policies and the Zionist movement. Sadly, my right-wing government and their supporters have hijacked the term. Yet, I refuse to let Israel’s current leaders define the ideology that has changed my life, that has taken me from the comfortable cradle of Montreal to this volatile, stimulating land.  In the same vein, I won’t let a few self-righteous students defame — and attack — an entire ideology based on false assumptions.  They, too, have narrowly defined the term Zionism; they scapegoat all who identify with it.

Meanwhile, the McGill community simmers.

It’s taken a while but both the SSMU and McGill’s administration have called for Sadikov’s resignation. He has yet to do so, instead issuing a half-apology and removing the incriminating tweet.

Regardless of the final outcome, the McGill community has crossed a dangerous line, and it has nothing to do with Zionism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s about basic freedoms. If the current debate targeted another group, I’d feel the same way.

It’s critical that the wider McGill community, especially alumni, contribute to the discussion. We had the benefit of a diverse and open campus, of voicing our opinions. It’s time to give back. We must demand that the University’s leadership respond forcefully to anti-democratic actions. Recent events didn’t occur in a vacuum. We must ensure that all McGill students can study in a respectful and tolerant atmosphere — not only when tensions are high, but all the time.

Melanie Takefman, McGill BA, 2001

About the Author
Born in Canada and living in Israel since 2003, Melanie Takefman writes about life in Israel, herstory and cross-cultural identity. She is currently working on a book about women and migration.
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