How bad is it on campus? Depends whom you ask

Pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian protestors face off at York University's Vari Hall
Pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian protestors face off at York University's Vari Hall FILE PHOTO

A mural in the York University Student Centre in Toronto is a Rorschach test of sorts for thinking about anti-Semitism on Canadian campuses.

The painting is of a man with rocks in his hands, looking at a house and a bulldozer. On his back is a Palestinian flag with a map of Israel that does not show any borders. Underneath are the words “Peace” and “Justice”

Danielle Shachar, a fourth-year psychology student and active in Israel advocacy, passes by the painting most days and said it leaves her feeling unsafe, especially on a campus where there has been violence against Jewish students in the past.

This painting hangs in York University’s student centre, despite repeated complaints from Jewish students.
This painting hangs in York University’s student centre, despite repeated complaints from Jewish students

“If a mural condoning violence against any other nation was hung on campus, it would rightfully be condemned. Only when it pertains to Jews do we see this disturbing double standard,” she said.

The painting won second place in a student art contest a few years ago, and despite Jewish students’ complaints to the university administration, it still hangs in the student centre.

Marc Newburgh, CEO of Hillel Ontario, has walked by the painting as well. When he’s asked about anti-Semitism on Ontario campuses, he’s quick to point out while each school has its own concerns, there are no riots, no fires burning. While there may be anti-Israel protests, hateful graffiti and divisive votes for boycotts, sanctions and divestment (BDS), students can generally go to school and get an education in peace.

“Like any other minority on campus, our students certainly, at times, are confronted with issues of discrimination and confronted by those who are not pleased with our support for Israel,” he said in an interview.

“I don’t think it’s out of control, I don’t think it’s running rampant. Students feel safe. They’re having a good experience.”

Shachar disagrees. In an essay published in The CJN earlier this year, she described York as “a breeding ground for violence, hate and discrimination against Israel and its student supporters.”

For his part, Newburgh said that while he wishes anti-Israel protests weren’t part of the campus landscape, he acknowledges that university students are at an age when they express their opinions forcefully and can be attracted to a narrative that paints the Palestinians as the underdogs in the Middle East.

“Only when it pertains to Jews do we see this disturbing double standard”

But most Jewish students, and in fact students in general are oblivious, “going to university with their ear buds on,” he said.

“Those students that are actively engaged are going to feel it more than the average Jewish student,” he added.

While some Canadian campuses seem to be perpetually engaged in BDS campaigns, others have remained more tranquil. Similarly, some students are able to walk past the protests and ignore anti-Israel comments from faculty and student associations, while others feel isolated and deeply frustrated that Jewish groups and university administrations can’t reach a consensus on how to best counter what seems like a propaganda machine intent on demonizing Israel.

Nicole West, a fourth-year communications student at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and president of the Students Supporting Israel club, said there is little anti-Israel sentiment on her campus.

But she’s discouraged that there was also apathy from the Jewish community when students organized a mock checkpoint where they yelled at participants in order to simulate what life is like for Palestinians on the West Bank.

She understands that reacting will only provoke a heated response, but said, “I’m the kind of person who fights fire with fire.

“I think it’s important to be proactive and say our narrative before the other side can say theirs. Once they say Jews killed babies, it’s very hard to turn back.”

Last month she helped organize an event that saw several young Israelis come to campus and speak with students.

The reaction, for the most part, was respectful. The group included a Druze Israeli and a Bedouin who were an effective counterpoint to the “social justice warriors” who protest against Israel, she said.

Not all campuses are so easygoing. A similar event last year at Hamilton’s McMaster University saw 75 students stage a “die-in protest.” A Palestinian-Israeli participant was so shaken after she was harassed at a tabling session that she withdrew from an evening event.

Fourth-year arts and science student, Hayley Goldfarb, president of McMaster’s Hillel, didn’t see the protests last year, but said they were instigated by a fringe group of people.

Hillel “tables” regularly in the McMaster student centre, promoting its own events and preferring to deliver a pro-Israel message to the entire university community rather than engage with protesters, she said.

“BDS votes, even if they don’t pass, can generate a hostile environment”

“They have tables, we have tables to offer another side of the story,” she said.

Goldfarb said she has never been harassed for expressing her pro-Israel beliefs. “I’m always wearing a Star of David,” she said pointing to her necklace. “We’re all very comfortable here.”

Last year’s protest at McMaster came weeks before the students’ union voted to endorse a BDS motion, which also heightened tensions on campus.

BDS votes, even if they don’t pass, can generate a hostile environment, said Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University and co-author of a report entitled Anti-Semitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities, released earlier this year.

Hillel and other Jewish advocacy groups are quick to point out that BDS votes are largely symbolic, and university administrators continue to forge close ties with their colleagues in Israel. But there is no doubt, Saxe said, that the campaigns themselves generate tension.

“Across the board, the BDS movement has gained steam, and in some ways, it’s a more serious situation than it was five years ago,” Saxe said in an interview.

In British Columbia, Rabbi Phillip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC said a contentious BDS vote at the University of British Columbia last year, which was defeated, led to “a storm of anti-Semitic events. 

“Relatively speaking, things are quiet,” on the seven campuses where BC Hillel works. “If you’re smart, you’re probably just holding your breath until things are not quiet,” he said.

Saxe surveyed 3,000 North American Jewish students, including 400 Canadians, and singled out Canadian and California universities as schools with the highest levels of hostility toward Israel. The respondents were students who had applied to go on a Birthright trip and are representative of the average Jewish student on campus, he said.

The survey found that one-third of students reported being verbally harassed because they are Jewish, but on some campuses, this can be as high as 40 or 45 per cent, Saxe said.

Perception of anti-Semitism tends to go “hand in hand with high levels of identification,” but it’s unclear if these students are an easy target or perceive it more intensely, he said.

Nonetheless, on some campuses, anti-Semitic incidents create “a hostile environment for Jewish students who support Israel’s right to exist.”

And the survey illustrates that the effects are widespread. “It’s not just a small group of the most engaged people who are subjected to this,” Saxe said.

Students who are pro-Israel, in fact, face a dilemma when they find themselves unexpectedly thrust into a hostile environment, but have no desire to become embroiled in debate or politics.

Emma Corber, a second-year theatre student at Montreal’s Concordia University said, “I’m not here to be an advocate for Israel. I don’t want to be a human sacrifice,” but she said she was left feeling isolated and powerless after her first semester of school, when an active BDS campaign was underway.

“It was the opposite of a welcome wagon for me. Everywhere I’d go, there was some sort of petitioning going on. I felt really isolated,” she said.

“There were posters everywhere. A lot of them would say ‘Come to this panel where we’re going to uncover Israeli war crimes.’ That’s really hurtful to see.”

The worst was seeing the student newspaper publish a series of articles about Israel and the BDS vote that were “blatant propaganda.

“I saw the newspaper everywhere, and it crushed me.”

She says she met with a university dean who empathized with her, but said he was also powerless to intervene.

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Corber turned to Hillel as a refuge and a place to meet Jewish friends who understood her feelings, but she is leery of the pro-Israel advocacy she has seen on campus.

“They put out arguments that are one-sided the other way. It’s not conducive to positive political discourse and problem-solving,” she says. “I’d rather not be a part of any group that’s going to add to the flames.”

But sometimes, on a volatile campus, the flames are fanned inadvertently.

An anti-Israel protest last month at York that Hillel students were observing escalated and led to campus security being called, said Hillel student president Natalie Slavat, who is in her final year studying psychology.

“A lot of [first-year] students were shocked,” she said. “Now they understand the reality.”

In response to the protest, Hillel led a prayer for Jewish unity and world peace to offer a more constructive response, Slavat said.

Being an active Zionist on campus can be challenging, especially when the student government has repeatedly pushed a BDS agenda.

“It can feel very uncomfortable to approach them with other issues. It can feel very isolating,” to the Jewish student community, she said.

Slavat recently spoke with students at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto as part of a workshop on life after high school.

“When you grow up in Jewish day school, the experience of coming to campus can be nerve-wracking,” she said.

But her message to students was unequivocal. “As much as it’s tough, it’s very, very rewarding. I’m very passionate about the opportunity to stand up for the Jewish People and Israel on campus,” she said in an interview. “I feel very lucky to do the work that I do.”

The reality is that on many campuses, students wish that Slavat and her activist peers did not have any work to do at all.