Dealing with anti-Israel activity on campus: To protest or not to protest?

York University students drape Israeli flags to counter an anti-Israel rally in 2009.

Should students tackle anti-Israel activities on campus head-on – setting up counter-events or even urging universities to ban groups and events from taking place – or is it best to downplay them in the hope of minimizing their impact?

That’s the central question for young pro-Israel advocates facing groups and individuals at their schools who are hostile to the Jewish state.

Some advocacy groups, most notably the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and its local affiliates, urge students to counter misinformation at anti-Israel events, but not through direct confrontation.

Judy Zelikovitz, CIJA’s vice-president of university and local partner services, argues that the right way to connect with “mainstream” students – who she says are usually not interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – is to demonstrate that Israel is a “normal, flourishing liberal democracy that shares Canada’s values.”

“When confronted with anti- and pro-Israel messages, rather than looking to take sides in a divisive foreign conflict, mainstream students are really determining which side is more moderate, relatable and relevant to their own interests,” she told The CJN.

But some student leaders say that such an approach falls short.

Sarah Bernamoff, a 2013 University of Calgary graduate and founder of Calgary United with Israel, which has both student and community members, said she started her advocacy group as a direct response to what she felt was a lack of support from mainstream Jewish organizations like CIJA and its affiliate, the Calgary Jewish Federation, in tackling anti-Israel campus activity.

Bernamoff said she and her group felt particularly alone when Israeli-American peace activist Miko Peled, who supports a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, made a stop at the University of Calgary during his Canada-wide campus speaking tour this past fall.

After learning of some of the statements Peled had made in his previous lectures, Bernamoff decided she had to do something.

“This is hate speech,” she said. “The speaker said, ‘Anybody who supports Israel is a terrorist, is a racist. You put feces in the drinking water of the Palestinians.’ This is libel.”

She had heard that the anti-Israel group sponsoring Peled’s talk was inviting Calgary’s large local native population to attend, arguing that Palestinians and Aboriginal people have many shared experiences with colonization and oppression.

That’s when Bernamoff resolved to hand out pamphlets at the event.

She contacted the Calgary Jewish Federation to find out whether the federation would work with her and perhaps contribute funds to produce the pamphlets, but Judy Shapiro, the federation’s associate executive director, declined.

Shapiro told Bernamoff the federation would not be confronting Peled directly, since Shapiro believes that handing out material at such events often leads to screaming matches and only serves to give publicity to the other side.

“We don’t find it effective to challenge specific pro-Palestinian speakers,” Shapiro told The CJN, explaining that it’s better to focus advocacy efforts on working with faculty and administrators on campuses to develop an environment where a pro-Israel stance is the norm, and to engage informally with individual students at anti-Israel events who appear to be neutral on the Mideast conflict.

“I’m not going to fund ineffective advocacy,” Shapiro said.

Bernamoff disagreed that her decision to pamphlet the event was ineffective and said her group’s efforts didn’t degenerate into a screaming match with the other side.

She said pro-Israel students needed to directly confront everyone who attended the lecture, in the hope that neutral students wouldn’t be swayed by Peled’s unbalanced perspective.

Bernamoff’s group ended up producing its own materials with financial support from StandWithUs, a California-based pro-Israel advocacy organization that recently launched a Canadian arm.

The group doesn’t have local campus affiliates, but does directly support students.

Meryle Kates, executive director of StandWithUs Canada, said her organization thought it was important to support Bernamoff’s group.

“We really believe it’s more important to show a pro-Israel stance year-round than to react to each speaker they bring,” she said, but she added that StandWithUs is happy to support students and community members who want to distribute materials at anti-Israel events.

Even if students don’t choose to do that, her group might simply monitor an event, as it did during Peled’s Toronto stop.

Bernamoff is emphatic that her efforts were successful.

“We had students who said they came to learn about the topic, could sense it was biased and thanked us for sharing our view,” she said.

“I know I had an impact.”

Despite Bernamoff’s enthusiasm, the non-confrontational approach prevails at campuses across the country.

For instance, many Toronto-area student unions have passed anti-Israel motions over the past year, and each time, the response on campus has been muted, while CIJA and groups such as Hillel of Greater Toronto have stressed that such resolutions are non-issues.

Adir Krafman, Israel engagement coordinator for Hillel of Greater Toronto, argued that campus anti-Israel motions are unfortunate, but they don’t represent the views of most students and are essentially symbolic votes without any tangible impact on universities or students.

Krafman said it’s important to focus on proactive efforts, not reactive ones.

“The anti-Israel movement is not as appealing as it used to be. It’s a dying movement,” he said. “The more attention we give to it, it’s giving it oxygen.”

Shapiro agreed with these sentiments, arguing that while they may be unsettling for some students, annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) activities on campuses across the country are limited in their effectiveness.

“My advice to the students is always that it’s not about stopping other people and denying their freedom of speech, it’s about presenting our argument in an effective way,” she said.

“If there’s a strong Israeli Apartheid Week, make sure you have a strong Israel Week,” she added, referring to efforts on some campuses to counter IAW.

Krafman said anti-Israel events should be allowed on campuses, because universities are known as bastions of free speech. Banning groups or speakers isn’t effective, he said, although pro-Israel students should mobilize if events become anti-Semitic.

Yet banning a group is exactly what Josh Morry was able to accomplish at the University of Manitoba last year. He was moved to act after seeing posters advertising Israeli Apartheid Week that depicted caricaturized Jews pointing bazookas at Palestinians.

Outraged, he decided to tackle the issue head-on.

“Students who go to class just need a 10-second snippet of something hateful in order to be convinced,” Morry said. “I’ve seen it myself… It’s not only dangerous, but I think it has convinced a number of students to have some bizarre opinions on Israel and Jews.”

In April, as a representative of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU), he submitted an ultimately successful motion to prevent the campus group Students Against Israeli Apartheid from receiving UMSU funding and from using campus facilities.

Although he supports freedom of speech on campus, he said there are limits. He thinks campuses are similar to workplaces, where some conduct isn’t tolerated.

Morry said the atmosphere at many universities is hostile to pro-Israel students.

“What we’re dealing with on college campuses is a group of organized bullies who pick on us because of what we believe and who we are… If we don’t take a stand and tell someone to make it stop – in my case I told UMSU council and they did [stop] – the bullying will only continue,” he said.