Courage to disagree, with respect: York University student initiative Bridging the Gap promotes civil dialogue on Israel

Bridging the Gap, a York initiative, held its first panel discussion Feb. 12, 2024, moderated by Randal Schnoor, left, a professor at York’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies who works with the student-led initiative. The panelists, comprising five of the eight people in the groups' executive council, from left, were Shai G., Elah C-R., Noam S., Leena M., and Mustafa Hani al-Qudsi; all except Leena M., a former student, currently study at York. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

Voices became louder and more tense when the panel discussion among Arab and Jewish students at York University veered into discussions about the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent war.

The panellists, part of a student initiative called Bridging the Gap, were holding their first public discussion and doing what they do best: agreeing to disagree about Israel/Palestine in a civil way.

Randal Schnoor, a professor at York’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, works with the student dialogue group, and moderated the panel on Feb. 12. Schnoor had asked panellists about the meanings of the terms Am Israel Chai and intifada.

Five of the eight executive council members of the group sat on the panel and shared their personal narratives. (Several have chosen not to give their last names.) Jewish York students on the panel included Shai G., Elah C-R, and Noam S., along with Palestinian panellists Mustafa Hani Al-Qudsi, a student, and former student Leena M. (One other executive council member of Syrian background supporting Palestinian voices had been slated to appear, but was unable to attend.)

Shai G. and Mustafa Hani Al-Qudsi, seated on the far left and right sides of the panel semicircle, were debating about free expression when the tone and language heated up during the exchange .

The Oct. 7 attacks “didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Mustafa had pointed out, while Shai G. had asked why aid for Gazans hadn’t reached them, adding that Hamas “intercepted” the aid.

Shai G. and Hani Al-Qudsi’s voices grew more urgent and emotional.

A pregnant pause came over the room before Schnoor spoke up.

“[They’re] demonstrating what civil dialogue should look like,” Schnoor told the audience, to applause.

“This is what we need to see more of… this is what a university should be.”

At the first panel discussion by York student-led initiative Bridging the Gap, the five panelists and members brought their own narratives, along with open ears and minds. From left, Shai G., Elah C-R., Noam S., Leena M. listen while Mustafa Hani Al-Qudsi, right, speaks on a shared microphone during the afternoon event on Feb. 12, 2024. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

About 35 people attended the public discussion over its two-plus hours duration, a small but determined contingent hoping to change the tenor of the conversation at York.

Schnoor said the executive started in November with closed sessions in which each of the eight core members got to know one another. They then opened up a couple of sessions that essentially broke out participants—about 20 or 30 each time, including students and some faculty—into groups of about seven or eight to continue the discussion.

Bridging the Gap was started by a small group, including Noam S. and Leena M., after the altercations that broke out at the university over a speaking event featuring an IDF soldier in 2019.

York has long been a flashpoint around Israel issues, with the 2019 event generating international media attention after fists were thrown between supporters of Israel and those supporting Palestinians. 

Schnoor said the group’s initial 2019 start went well, with a few meetings, but then fizzled out during the COVID pandemic.

The Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel re-ignited tensions on the suburban Toronto campus. Three student unions are currently under investigation by university administration, after allegations they breached York’s inclusion rules in their post-Oct. 7 statements.

In January, CUPE 3903, the union representing part-time faculty and teaching assistants at York, distributed materials with a call to “collectively divert” tutorials for the week of Jan. 21-28 from course content to “teaching on Palestinian liberation.”

The materials also targeted York’s complicity in what it called “Israel’s unrestrained confidence to carry out genocidal violence” and criticized the university’s relationship with Jewish student organization Hillel, calling it a “Zionist cultural institution.”

Hillel Ontario said it was aware of at least one or two instances when the “Teaching for Palestine Toolkit” was used.

At the panel discussion and in speaking with The CJN, Schnoor said the posters for Bridging the Gap had been torn down, even after the first poster, which featured both Israeli and Palestinian flags, was replaced by one with a less nationalistic image—a slice of pizza.

Schnoor said while the group doesn’t agree with tearing down posters, they understand the reaction to the initiative, and he continues to spread the word via email lists, WhatsApp, and other platforms instead of on-campus posters.

While the group may not be for everyone or not right away, Schnoor says, he wants it to provide space for all voices and views, which could include, for example, Jews who don’t support Israel or identify as anti-Zionist.

“It’s a safe place. And it is also a brave place. It takes courage,” to be part of such a group, Schnoor said, because it is based on personal connections and narratives being shared in ways conducive to better listening and fostering mutual recognition.

He says people tend to come to the group nervous the first time, but leave feeling a sense of relief.

“People come in often very nervous, very hesitant. And [when] they leave, they’re often glowing, relieved, and I would say empowered,” he says of the previous sessions.

“They feel ‘finally, I can just share what I what I think without being judged.’”

Schnoor has previously taught a course at the university that explores both Jewish and Muslim experiences in Canada by looking at antisemitism and Islamophobia. While the course has not been offered this academic year, he told The CJN in October he was speaking about current events in some of his Jewish studies classes, some of which include Muslim as well as Jewish students.

During introductions, when the five panellists discussed their own connections and personal narratives, Mustafa Hani Al-Qudsi remarked that many of them hadn’t met one another before this, nor sat down to talk with those they might disagree with.

Leena M., a Palestinian whose family moved to Jordan, shared her experiences there and then in Canada. She says in Canada she’s sometimes mistaken for Ashkenazi Jewish, and at York she made friends with a Russian Jewish girl who is pro-Israel, but she didn’t want to end friendship even though members of her Palestinian community might criticize her for not being on the “right side.”

The tense moment that came during the exchange between Hani Al-Qudsi and Shai G., which Schnoor deftly moderated by pointing to their ability to have a civil yet emotional exchange, led Noam S. to an important takeaway.

The debate in that moment was around the differing interpretations of terms like intifada or Am Israel Chai.

“The way we get to [the right term] is by talking about what the terms mean to Israelis and Jews and to Palestinians,” said Noam S., who spoke about his Moroccan and Ashkenazi family background.

The five executive members who sat on the panel agreed the event marked a significant step forward, speaking to The CJN following the panel discussion.

“Despite it sometimes getting heated, and tensions rising, we kept ourselves respectful to a degree where we wouldn’t insult each other,” Noam S. said.

“We heard each other’s points and this panel hopefully will build our relationship with one another as executives, and our skills,” to be able to continue and improve, he said.

“We shouldn’t forget that we are all affected by this situation,” he said.  

“We’re not third-party observers, and in a way this discussion can help us develop our relationship with one another such that we can be an example of how to have these very difficult discussions, how to recognize each other’s humanity.”

Shai G. added that the diversity of views on the panel is key to its appeal and growth potential.

“Having [panellists] with these amount of views is really good as the audience grows, which I think is the movement forward,” he said.

People who might not be able to discuss such sensitive topics can listen to a panel discussion and hear someone else express their ideas, but respectfully, he said.

Elah C-R said the group is starting to change the conversation and engage with subjects deemed taboo.

“Does it need to be so polarizing? Nothing is too complicated to not talk about,” she said. “If it’s so complex and if it’s so difficult, why are we not talking about it in a respectful way?”

“Having a taboo creates a bigger divide than we think,” said Mustafa Hani Al-Qudsi. 

“We’re getting to know about each other. We’re getting to know about each other’s opinions because we’re choosing to avoid the taboo status. Ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hate, and we’re here to fight that.”

He says that despite any apprehensions, everyone in the group is there to learn about one another, and said he’d learned something new about the different interpretations of intifada.

“I learned that I didn’t understand, I didn’t know that Israelis or Jews were terrified of the word intifada,” he said.

“I’m a native Arabic speaker, so for me it means something very different. For me, it is truly revolution… praising fighting against the man, the bad man… but it’s healthy to know these things, because when we have a conversation about it, I understand that they’re fearful of the word, a word because of some events that were tied to it, but it’s good to for them to hear my side too.”

“When I learn about you, you also learn about me,” he said.

Leena M., who started Bridging the Gap with Noam S. and Schnoor in 2019, says it’s good to know that there are ways forward. She says that even before the panel, she felt somewhat lonesome in what she calls her “ability to articulate both sides,” or play devil’s advocate.

“It’s hard enough to represent my side to people who just look at me as a label: ‘oh you’re Palestinian,’ and that’s the entirety of what they’ll see,” she says.

“But it’s also just as hard to articulate, at least what I understood from my Jewish friends and my Israeli compatriots, and what they’ve got to experience. It’s almost as hard if not harder to explain that to people from at least my background who aren’t necessarily at the place that I’m at, yet,” she says.

“It’s nice to see it just coming together in ways that don’t stress me out too much.”

Lizzie Sozonchuk, another Jewish member of the executive council, attended but was not a panellist. She said the discussion showcased the way the group facilitates dialogue.

“Everyone in this group has kind of already talked about these issues and they’re demonstrating how to disagree with an idea without attacking a person, which is what I think is going on a lot of times and causing problems between students and on campus, and in our society, in general,” she says.

Even when people disagree in the moment, she said, they might think on it, “digest” the arguments later, perhaps concluding there’s more to learn or that they need more information than they’d realized.

“We’re all living in an echo chamber these days, so it’s really important for us to see how you can come out of your echo chamber and still be safe,” she said. 

Schnoor says he’s received expressions of interest about what the group is doing from faculty and some students at institutions across Canada and abroad, including University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, Queen’s University, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Australia’s University of Sydney.

Bridging the Gap’s goals include eventually taking the format of events and discussions to other campuses, perhaps starting with Ontario universities, according to Schnoor.

 “People are hungry for what we’re doing.”