Inside the battle to change hearts and minds about Israel on campus

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators clash in the halls of York University in Toronto on Nov. 20. (Alex Rose/The CJN)

On Nov. 20, Herut Canada hosted an event at York University in Toronto featuring IDF reservists discussing Israel. Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) organized a protest outside the event. Pro-Israel counter-protesters showed up, as well, and the two groups clashed.

In the aftermath of the event, Jewish groups, including Hillel York, denounced the original SAIA protest and the hostile and intimidating climate it created for Jewish students. However, in a statement, Hillel Ontario CEO Marc Newburgh noted that Hillel declined to sponsor the event with Herut because Hillel “believed the event did not align with our campus programming strategy and we were concerned about the risk of violence.… Programs that create division are antithetical to creating a safe environment for Jewish students on campus.”

This highlights the different ways that Jewish groups engage in Israel advocacy on campus. Indeed, there are a number of groups that advocate for Israel at Canadian universities: Hillel, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, Herut Canada and JSpaceCanada, to name a few. For the most part, these organizations appear to be aligned. After all, they’re all working towards the same goal. But every once in a while, circumstances can highlight the differences between them.

On its surface, an event featuring IDF reservists educating people about Israel seems like the kind of event Hillel would want to sponsor. And in a vacuum, it probably is. But Rabbi Seth Goren, Hillel Ontario’s chief education and campus officer, stressed that just because an event makes sense ideologically for Hillel, doesn’t mean it makes sense strategically.

Two of Hillel’s primary goals are fostering connections to Israel and improving the environment for Jewish students. Hillel reviews potential events on a case-by-case basis, using its specific campus knowledge to try to determine whether an event will further its goals or compromise them.

“What works at York is not what’s going to work at McMaster. What works at U of T is not what’s going to work at Western,” said Rabbi Goren, who oversees all those campuses.

“We often will make decisions that are really spearheaded by our campus staff and by our campus directors. We trust them to know what works best on our campus and what their students’ needs and interests are, and we want to support them in bringing in programs that speak to their students and help to really connect them to Israel.”

In the case of the event at York, Hillel presumably determined ahead of time that it had the potential to be divisive and could turn into what Rabbi Goren called a “toxic event.”

“If people choose to try and make (divisive events) an opportunity for healing and for discussion and for dialogue and for understanding, it can be incredibly positive. But that requires people to actively make those choices,” he said.

“Things can also easily go off the rails. A toxic event is something that lights a fire and causes an explosion and that just keeps burning. That’s a lot harder to put out. It’s a lot harder to make good come of it.”


Ilan Orzy, the director of advocacy and issues management for Hillel Ontario, said that despite what some members of the Jewish community may think, most Jewish students at York do not feel like they are constantly under attack.

“Hillel York, our staff and our students have made tremendous strides towards improving the campus climate for Jewish students and their involvement in their academic careers,” Orzy said. “We strive to ensure that that environment is not negatively affected by one specific incident, but is rather strengthened by the plethora of opportunities we offer on campus.”

A week after the protest, the York Federation of Students (YFS) passed a motion at its AGM, which said it would oppose “representatives of the Israeli state or any other imperialist power” who are gathering support for war and occupation.

Lauren Isaacs, the Toronto director of Herut Canada, said she thinks the motion is a symptom of a larger problem that would exist regardless of whether her event took place.

“The anti-Semitism is there. The fact is, it’s always been there, and people who are suggesting that our event caused it are grossly incorrect. It’s that our event shone a spotlight on it. It was there and it was growing and increasing in hostility just under the feet of students, waiting to break free. And we demonstrated that it is alive and well,” she said.

Isaacs described herself and her organization as “unapologetically Zionist,” and said Herut – which has since been suspended at York, along with SAIA, pending the school’s investigation of the events of Nov. 20 – makes a point of openly supporting Israel in a way she doesn’t believe other Zionist organizations do. It’s a show of solidarity and support for Jews on campus who feel like they can’t express their Zionism.

“We’re showing them that they’re not alone. There are proud Zionists who are willing to put themselves out there and say, ‘I don’t care if there are loud or dangerous or violent people against us, we are still going to maintain, we’re going to be true to our identity and hold the flag proudly,’ ” she said. “By keeping our heads down and hiding, it’s not helping anything. It’s just allowing an environment for this sort of hate and anti-Jewish, anti-Israel sentiment to grow.”

All of the representatives of Zionist organizations who were interviewed for this article agreed with Isaacs’ assessment that there are people who express anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments on campuses. However, they offered different strategies about how to deal with them.

Daniel Koren, the director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, said his organization approaches Israel advocacy with the 70 per cent rule in mind. That rule refers to the majority of students who do not have a strong opinion about Israel one way or the other.

There isn’t much of a point in targeting the approximately 30 per cent of students who already feel strongly about Israel, whether for or against. So Hasbara approaches its advocacy through the lens of how to best reach the remaining 70 per cent.

“Some members of our community feel that when there’s rallies and anti-Israel protests that our community wants to have a voice standing up to the haters, standing up to the propaganda and saying no. And I must say that I completely understand the rationale and the logic behind this,” he said.

“From a symbolic point of view, I think it is positive to show that we’re not going to be bullied around, we’re not going to let the anti-Israel activists define our identity, define our experience, define our history.”

However, Hasbara doesn’t want its support for Israel to be purely symbolic – it also needs to be effective.

“When you’re having pro-Israel students chanting pro-Israel slogans amongst other pro-Israel students against anti-Israel students who have already made their mind up … it simply, in my view, isn’t advocacy,” Koren said. “Advocacy is really teaching and education.”

And he believes education works best on people who are less knowledgeable about a subject – that is, the 70 per cent.

“My concern with starting wars with other groups would be that for the non-Jewish students walking by … it just seems like people yelling and screaming at each other,” he said. “It’s not effective advocacy.”

Students who see or hear about a polarizing event are liable to withdraw from the discussion entirely. Koren said Hasbara has evidence showing that students disengage from negativity, but respond well to positivity. That’s why attendance at Israel Apartheid Week events seems to be declining, he said, and why Hasbara sponsors an effective Israel Peace Week instead of an event aimed at criticizing other countries, which could turn people away.

And it’s why an event that’s supposed to educate new people about Israel could end up attracting mostly staunch supporters or vocal detractors, instead of the people it was intended for.

Karen Mock, the president of the progressive Zionist organization JSpaceCanada, said the goals of the people who host divisive events will influence how students judge the ensuing controversy.

“Is (the event) just to say, ‘we can, so we will and we’re going to be in your face, we don’t care what you say’? Or is it, in fact, to present balanced and nuanced and historical facts?” Mock asked.

Mock believes that if the intention is to be loud for the sake of being loud, it undermines attempts at effective Israel advocacy and does nothing to counter anti-Semitism.

Mock said JSpaceCanada started as a way to address the growing anti-Semitism in what she called “the anti-racist, anti-oppression world.” To further this goal, it brings in respected and trusted anti-oppression experts to educate members of that community about anti-Semitism in a way that will make sense and resonate with them.

“We’re not coming with violent protests and screaming and yelling and bringing in the Israeli army. We’re bringing in people who are experts on human rights and anti-racism, including, by the way, some Muslims and Palestinians, and certainly Jews who are at the forefront of the struggle, and blacks,” she said.

“And when you have a black anti-racist activist who’s well respected look at a hundred people and tell them what anti-Semitism is and why we need to stand up against it, that’s powerful.”

Renan Levine, a political science professor at University of Toronto who has hosted numerous events about Israel over the years, encourages his students to listen to each other instead of trying to solve the conflict here in Canada, because that approach just exacerbates tensions.

“Another potential approach is to be able to say, ‘my people and your people have differences. And I think I’m right. And you no doubt think you’re right. And I think I have facts on my side,’ ” he said. “It takes a lot to recognize that the other person also thinks that they have facts on their side. So now how are you going to have a conversation? And how might that conversation help either person better understand where the other one is coming from?”

It’s not always easy to take that approach, however. Jordana Schiff – a third-year student at McGill University in Montreal who is a StandWithUs fellow, Israel on Campus executive and former Hasbara fellow – said the most challenging part of effectively advocating for Israel is balancing her emotional response with her rationality.

That can be especially difficult at McGill, where scandals regarding Israel and Jewish students frequently arise, such as the recent controversies over the McGill Daily’s anti-Zionism policy and student union leaders taking a sponsored trip to Israel (for more on this story, see page 12).

“I love Israel unconditionally and will defend it at all costs, and often just want to act out of instinct and defend what I know is right. But when defending Israel, you have to be strategic, as Israel has many enemies on the college campuses,” she wrote in an email to The CJN.

“I always have to step back and realize that although I think one thing, not everyone agrees and I need to come up with strategies for expressing my belief in a way that will persuade other people.”

For example, she said she would want to highlight the morality of the IDF, especially since she has many friends serving in it, but she recognizes that probably wouldn’t go over well on campus. Nor would that message resonate with other students.

Instead, she considers what would make her or her peers stop at a table set up in a hallway. Schiff knows she wouldn’t care about a table with a flag of another country, so she doesn’t expect her peers to stop at a table because it has an Israeli flag. But students like marijuana, so she’d set up a booth about Israeli innovations in cannabis.

Schiff also stressed the importance of being able to respond to anti-Zionists constructively, in a way that is consistent with the goals of the organizations she represents.

“As much as we want to convince the anti-Zionist 15 per cent to change their minds, or even engage in discussion, it normally just isn’t worth (it). They don’t agree with us and, as much as it sucks, we have to respect their opinions and beliefs,” she wrote.

“But that doesn’t mean we always ignore them. When in public, it is super important to be able to have educated conversations with these people, where we can respectfully call out their lies and explain our perspective on the matter.

“The goal of these conversations is not to change their minds, but it’s for the sake of everyone else around listening to us. Especially when they are aggressively yelling at us, we have to show everyone that we are calm and present the facts, because the people around are the 70 per cent and we want to have a positive impact on them.”