What The YorkU Mural Controversy Taught Me

In the on-going public dialogue in the Jewish community about the campus environment, the “Palestinian Roots” mural in the York University student center has dominated the discourse, and has become something of a flashpoint for all of the anti-Jewish ills occurring on campuses across Ontario today.

To be blunt, the mural is not the #1 issue on campus facing Jewish/Israeli students. I maintain that the York Federation of Student’s deliberately incumbent-favoring and anti-democratic election practices, which have solidified a power monopoly in the hands of an alliance of “establishment activist” who put up the mural in the first place, is the real issue. But alas, due to what I think is the fact that there is a discomforting visual attached to this particular problem, the mural itself has dominated the discourse about the predicament at York University, rather than what it signifies.

I’d like to point attention to the reaction of the student officials who defend this mural, which very clearly is a glorification of Palestinian nationalistic terrorism. I want to focus on one particular example that was published when the story of (former) York University benefactor Paul Bronfman’s boycott of the institution, was circulating through the Canadian media. CBC’s Carol Off interviewed Gayle McFadden, the VP Operations of the YFS and the executive decision maker of all things York Student Center.

Off asks: “Some Jewish students have expressed their feelings that they are in a toxic environment at York University that’s anti-Semitic, and that this mural is part of that. What do you think of that?”

McFadden responds: It is not anti-Semitic to be critical of the State of Israel, and with this painting depicting an artist’s interpretation of the occupation of Palestine, it is important to realize that this is critical of the state, not of the faith.”

And here we have it; this is the crux of the entire problem of campus anti-Zionism. Despite the preoccupation with fighting racism, sexism and Islamophobia underpinned by equity and diversity principles, we see here what would be a huge social justice no-no, that is, if the recipients were anyone other than the Jews. In social justice, it is the place of the minority group to codify and define the group hatred directed at them, and not the place of the majority or any other minority group to do so, and for obvious reasons. The concept of anti-Jewish group hatred has been co-opted and misappropriated by activists who by their own admission (or in McFadden’s case, voting record), wish to advance a movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction the Jewish State, regardless of the anti-Jewish environment it creates on campus.

This problem has been so entrenched for so long that its “progressive” for someone, someone who by their own policy stands by the BDS movement to deny Israel’s right to exist, to culturally appropriate the Jewish experience, and dictate to Jews about their own group-hatred. We are more than a faith. We are a people, we are a culture, we are a nation, and we are a religion. And now that we have a country, now that we have returned to our indigenous roots as the people of Israel after 2,000 years of colonization, dispersion and oppression, we are also citizens of the world’s only Jewish state.

So yes, anti-Semitism can take the form of opposition and derision of the Jewish faith, Judaism. But hatred of the Jewish people can manifest as religious, social, conspiratorial, racial, and, nationalistic in nature.

Now, in the 21st century, anti-Semitism takes the form of “anti-Zionism”, opposition to the existence of the State of Israel that goes far beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. It’s ignoring the daily stabbing and bludgeoning and vehicular homicides Palestinians have been incited to inflict on citizens of Israel, Jewish and Arab alike. It’s labeling the security mechanisms designed to repel Palestinian suicide bombers, a terrorist method promised by the Palestinian leadership to be resumed should those mechanisms be removed, as “apartheid”.

Anti-Zionism is demonizing Jewish self-determination. It’s the de-legitimization of the very real everyday terrorist threat faced by Israeli civilians. It’s being an advocate of indigenous rights and decolonization, but imposing a double standard by arbitrarily deeming the 2,000 year old indigenous Jewish struggle against Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Islamic and European imperialism as “racism”.

But the cherry on the cake of this hypocrisy is not McFadden’s approval of Palestinian violence, but her deference to it. “I’m not going to tell a Palestinian how to resist an occupation“, she tells the CBC, but she and the rest of the BDS student politicians have no issue at all telling Jews to accept her their own definition of anti-Semitism. McFadden and company have no issue telling Jews how to feel about violent anti-Israel imagery romanticizing this ‘resistance’, which, I must say, as the thousands of victims of recent Palestinian terrorism will attest, isn’t so peaceful or romantic, as the mural deceptively suggests.

This is a matter of ideology. I’m unsure as to how to fight it at this exact level, but as long as anti-Semitism is allowed to continue to be defined by anti-Semites, it will flourish and increases in its social acceptability, especially on an unsafe campus like York University, which seems to just grow more and more hostile to Jewish students as time “progresses”.

About the Author
Willem Hart is a social science and Jewish studies student at York University in Toronto. He is an active member in the pro-Israel scene, and a lifelong disabilities service worker and advocate.