McGill University in Montreal has been at the center of an ugly storm for the past few weeks.
In recent years, the image of this world renowned institution has been blemished by the unwarranted actions of a small minority of anti-Israel students who cannot tolerate ideas other than their own. Lamentably, this toxic phenomenon is hardly unique to McGill, and is found on campuses across Canada, the United States and Europe.
Three years ago, the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) was widely condemned for having tried to ram through a motion in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, whose overarching objective is to defame and delegitimize Israel.
In 2017, a member of the SSMU resigned after posting a tweet regarding his desire to punch students who subscribe to Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
For the past several years, The McGill Daily, a student newspaper whose mandate is to reflect the diverse opinions of its rainbow range of readers, has steadfastly refused to publish pro-Israel or pro-Zionist articles, even though it is funded by the student body. Last month, The McGill Daily was forced by the administration to publish a letter by a pro-Israel student reacting against its demeaning, one-sided and inaccurate definition of Zionism.
Most recently, Jordyn Wright, a Jewish member of the SSMU, was reprimanded by the SSMU for having accepted a free educational trip to Israel sponsored by Hillel, the Jewish student organization. Wright decided to accept the trip, called Face to Face, to gain a better understanding of Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. “As a Jew, my connection to Israel is a core aspect of my identity, and I hoped that this trip would help me to experience Israel through a new lens,” she wrote on her Facebook page on November 29.
Wright was one of three McGill student leaders who signed on for the trip, which is scheduled to take place at the end of December. Two students cancelled their participation on the trip, but Wright decided to go, prompting the SSMU to issue an ultimatum: withdraw from it or resign. Wright was acutely aware she could be impeached if she went through with it.
SSMU President Bryan Buraga, who claims he is open to a diversity of views, says that Wright should not have accepted the trip because it would place her in an “improper and an apparent conflict of interest” and set a bad example for other students. He contends she was invited thanks to her position in the SSMU. It’s a weak argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Since when should student leaders be barred from enlarging their horizons by accepting subsidized trips?
Madeline Wilson, an SSMU member, expressed a more honest viewpoint, claiming the trip will present students with a biased overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similar concerns were raised by Arab and Palestinian students, she says. The trip will doubtless expose students to Israel’s perspective, but is this beyond the pale? Students have every opportunity to educate themselves about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and this trip will add one more layer of information to their base of knowledge.
Wright, a second-year science major, told the Montreal Gazette that McGill is generally a great place for a Jewish student, but that there have been instances when students have been targeted due to their “ethnic or religious affiliation.” Many of these incidents have involved Jewish students, she says, adding that Muslim and Indigenous students have been affected as well.
In her Facebook post, Wright writes that “prohibitive anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism have led to a tainted image of an unfriendly campus for Jews.” Of late, she notes, “I am feeling the discriminatory burden that our student politics routinely places on Jewish and pro-Israel students.”
Wright argues that the SSMU has engaged in antisemitism by virtue of its false assumption that “I have to be held accountable for what the Israeli government is doing.”
She adds, “I am proud to be Jewish. Israel is the country with which I identify my heritage and culture, and I am lucky to call it a second home. My personal views do not preclude my sympathy for the continued suffering of the Palestinian people.”
Taking another justifiable swipe at the SSMU, she says, “McGill’s student leaders consider themselves to be champions of equity, inclusivity and diversity. I am appalled that McGill politics continues to exclude and discriminate against Jewish students. It is time to end this pattern of antisemitism deeply embedded in the SSMU that continually targets Jewish or Zionist students year after year. We must demand better of the people we elected to serve us.”
As Wright correctly told the Montreal Gazette, “The only way to solve these problems is to bring people together, discuss difficult topics and build bridges, rather than singling individuals out. Our approach as students should be constructive and not punitive.”
She is completely right, and McGill deputy provost Fabrice Labeau concurs with her astute assessment.
In a statement, Labeau lambasted SSMU’s decision to censure Wright as contrary to McGill’s values of “inclusion, diversity and respect.” He said the administration would monitor the situation and “take measures” to ensure students feel safe and respected on campus.”
Two days ago, under pressure from McGill, the SSMU belatedly voted to throw out the motion that would have punished Wright for accepting the trip to Israel.
This is a story with a satisfactory ending, but McGill should issue an assurance to students that such outrageous provocations from the university-funded student council will be tolerated no longer.