Rafi Matchen was at his family home in Thornhill, Ont. Thursday evening when he learned that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a ceasefire that would go into effect later that night.
“We’re all really excited,” said Matchen, a computer science student at Queen’s University in Kingston. Then, correcting himself, he added “Not excited, but relieved.”
It is a feeling shared by thousands of Canadian Jewish students this weekend, after the 11-day long crisis saw many Jewish people in this country becoming targets of a different kind of war: one that has seen threats of physical violence against students in Calgary, a violent video on TikTok, and “hateful” attacks being waged on Instagram and other social media feeds.
“There’s a sort of deluge of that, and that’s all that you’re seeing, [and] it can feel very alienating,” Matchen said, referring to anti-Israel posts from some of Queen’s campus clubs and even from friends.
Support for BDS by Queen’s newspaper
For the past week, Matchen and Queen’s Hillel have been working to counter a statement released May 16 by the editors of campus newspaper, The Queen’s Journal. The statement, published on Instagram, took the Palestinian side although it did mention anti-Semitism. The editors pledged to use money which the paper receives from mandatory student tuition and recreation fees to support the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which is aimed at crippling Israel’s economy.
After Jewish groups raised the issue with Queen’s administration, the editors Shelly Talbot and Aysha Tabassum issued a retraction, and promised that no campus money would be donated to BDS. But the incident has caused anxiety for Matchen and some of the 1,500 Jewish students who attend the university.
“I feel this personally. …and we’ve even had messages from Queen’s students, either they’re already here or even more scary, they’re incoming Queen’s students next year saying ‘How can I feel safe if this is the situation at Queen’s?’”
Support meetings held
The Queen’s incident is just one of many events that have prompted Jewish organizations across Canada to hold online support meetings for anxious students.
On Wednesday, Jewish students from Alberta and Saskatchewan attended a virtual session led by Calgary’s Jewish Federation and Hillel Calgary. According to organizer Danielle Braitman, even though most students are not physically at school, there has been an alarming spike in campus-related anti-Zionist and anti-Israel incidents online.
“Currently we are seeing an extreme rise in online hate primarily directed at what is being considered apartheid and ethnic cleansing [by Israel], from the Palestinian narrative,” Braitman said. “We’re entering into this unknown realm of, for the first time, having to deal with Instagram and the sharing of infographics, and this is taking a huge toll on the psyche of the Jewish student population.”
LeeAnn Grisaru is a student at the University of Calgary, and is president of the city’s Hillel club, which has approximately 120 members. Grisaru has seen vicious social media posts coming from campus clubs and also from a popular account known as U of Confessions, which is not affiliated with the university.
“They’ve been posting extremely hateful messages. Jewish people have been attacked in the comments section. They’ve been called ‘toilet paper’. People have been saying they’re embarrassed to go to university with them,” Grisaru, 21, told The CJN Daily podcast.
While the University of Calgary had not heard directly from its Jewish students, a spokesperson acknowledged Thursday that the school is aware of Jewish students being very concerned given the “Israel-Palestine crisis and how it is playing out in the media and social media worldwide,” wrote Michelle Crossland, a university communications advisor, in an email.
“We will reach out and make ourselves available to ensure we listen and address the issues. We will also follow up with the Student’s Union who oversees the student clubs,” Crossland said, pledging to “hold accountable” those who violate the school’s policies of a safe, healthy, inclusive and respectful environment.
Other examples from across Canada
- In Toronto, student Josh Bodenstein asked for a meeting with campus administrators at the University of Toronto Scarborough this week, after the Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU) posted several statements and messages on Instagram in solidarity with Palestinians, and called Israel an apartheid state, using the word murder.
Bodenstein went onto the Facebook group Everything Jewish in Toronto to post screen captures of the student union’s messages.
“I find this extremely inappropriate, as a student union should not be advertising their political views, as they are supposed to represent all students in matters pertaining to education,” Bodenstein wrote. “As a student, I pay fees to support this group and I believe my student union is violating and abusing its mandate. Not to mention, they have deleted three of my pro-Israel comments on their page.”
The SCSU has a long history of being pro-Palestinian.
- Daphne Klajman graduated from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax in 2020, before moving to Israel to pursue a Master’s degree. In a video shared by the Atlantic Jewish Council, Klajman described what it was like being in a bomb shelter during the Hamas rocket barrages, and then receiving aggressive anti-Israel social media messages from her former school friends and classmates in Canada.
“What I didn’t expect was to be flooded with DMs (direct messages) from people that I used to think were my friends,…asking me over and over again, to condemn the State of Israel,” said Klajman, who was a Hasbara Canada fellow before leaving for Israel. “And not one of them were (sic) asking me if I was okay.”
“We’ve seen students as the targets of social media and social shunning, with condemnation of Israel and Zionism the price,” said Naomi Rosenfeld, the executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council. Rosenfeld was speaking Thursday at a national virtual rally hosted by CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which attracted over 1,000 participants.
While students attending the Alberta support session were advised to take a break from using their phones in the social media war, and to check out pleasant Reddit sites like Eyebleach, student LeeAnn Grisaru said that isn’t realistic.
“My mom has definitely encouraged me to take a break from my phone, but what parents need to realize is that today all our major social networks are on social media, our entire lives are on there,” Grisaru said. “We are watching our entire social system collapsing in front of our eyes.”
With the ceasefire coming into effect, students and Jewish organizations predict social media will also calm down, leaving behind hurt feelings, and plenty of work to do to prepare for a return to classes in the fall.
“We are very concerned that even though this will fade from the global psyche, usually within the month, the mental health repercussions that we are going to have from this are going to be very long lasting,” said Danielle Braitman, of the Calgary Jewish Federation. “And we’re looking at an entirely new area of generational trauma that’s going to continue to be passed down.”
As for the situation in Kingston, Queen’s student Rafi Matchen was scheduled to attend a session of the university’s student council Thursday, known as the Alma Mater Society. He wanted to be on hand for a discussion about the situation in the Middle East. He wasn’t expecting the AMS to issue a statement on the conflict, despite being under considerable pressure to do so from several groups.
“It’s kind of funny because it feels like the Oslo Accords, where we are fighting over the language of this statement, but at this point we don’t think they’re going to come up with anything close to something that will be satisfactory to both sides,” Matchen said.
Matchen calls the Queen’s Journal incident “a rupture in the normal order of things at Queen’s,” and he feels there will be a calming down of tensions on campus. He is urging students to put things into perspective.
“No matter what the emotional impact is of sitting online and seeing your phone and seeing the story, it’s nothing like the emotional impact of being in Israel or in Gaza right now, and you know, being in the middle of this,” he said.
Hillel’s Queen’s campus director, Yos Tarshish, is already seeing the silver lining from the crisis of these past two weeks.
“I think this has galvanized the Queen’s Jewish student body more than anything else,” Tarshish said, adding he’s been contacted by many students and even their parents wanting to show support. “So when we think towards next year, we’re starting to think about what we are going to do to shift the conversation.”
They know taking on some of the more pro-Palestinian clubs on campus is probably not a strategy that would be successful.
“Thank goodness there’s been a ceasefire and hopefully we’ll see some return to normalcy,” Tarshish said. “But while things are already hot there’s always a question of whether it’s right for Hillel to raise the heat, whether that is something that will be good for Jewish students on campus, and so we have to dance a very tight line around some of these things.”