Hillel Ontario: At the forefront of the fight against campus anti-Semitism

University of Toronto (bobistraveling/flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Everywhere I go, I hear from community members who are fed up with the climate Jewish students are facing on campus. As a parent, a Jew, a Zionist, and CEO of the largest regional Hillel in the world, I share this anger, and that is what motivates me to roll up my sleeves and keep pushing forward.

From a violent demonstration disrupting a pro-Israel event, to a student union passing a discriminatory resolution, to the intellectually dishonest Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), Jewish students have faced a range of difficult challenges on campus this year. The stakes are high and we cannot be complacent.

Hillel Ontario is the only Jewish organization that operates on nine university campuses every day. We support and are inspired by, proud, courageous and passionate Jewish students leaders. Despite all the challenges – in many ways because of them – we will not be deterred from creating vibrant Jewish campus life across the province. That includes celebrating and nurturing our students’ connection to Israel. Efforts to intimidate Jewish students and deter them from fully expressing their identity will not stop us from doing our crucial work. 

The month of March and IAW understandably create a heightened sense of concern within our community about Jewish life on campus. It has been 15 years since IAW first emerged at the University of Toronto. Today, if you ask most students about IAW, they have simply tuned out, recognizing that the extreme rhetoric of a small, loud group of anti-Israel activists offers nothing of value. Students don’t want to engage with these kinds of programs and, instead, are gravitating towards the inclusive, coalition and community-building efforts that are core to Hillel Ontario’s strategy. 

 The proof is in the numbers. Between 2012 and 2018, there has been a nearly 50 per cent decline in IAW programs on Canadian campuses. At the student union level, 61 per cent of BDS initiatives were defeated. In the last two years, this number jumped to 85 per cent of BDS initiatives being defeated. Fringe anti-Israel initiatives like BDS have had zero impact on the flourishing Canada-Israel academic relationship, with dozens of partnerships between Canadian and Israeli universities signed on an annual basis.

However, win or lose, BDS and IAW create a toxic atmosphere on campus, making Jewish students feel unduly singled-out and in some cases even targeted. That’s why Hillel Ontario, with the support of our advocacy partner, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), is hard at work. 

 Throughout the year, Jewish student leaders supported by Hillel Ontario staff promote Israel as the vibrant, democratic, peace-seeking nation we all know it to be, and form strategic alliances with moderate, like-minded students. In the past year, we have hosted joint programs with dozens of diverse campus groups, trained hundreds of students in effective advocacy tactics, and educated thousands of others about the Holocaust and contemporary anti-Semitism. Across all of our campuses we hosted more than 150 programs highlighting the shared values between Israelis and the campus community in Canada.

We know student unions often pose the greatest challenge. That’s why  Hillel Ontario staff support and encourage Jewish and non-Jewish students to get involved in student politics and advocate for issues they care about, including fighting BDS. Simultaneously, we have build high-level partnerships with campus administrators to ensure that our voices are heard at the highest levels.

 Let there be no mistake, Hillel Ontario is at the forefront of the fight against campus anti-Semitism. 

 As Hillel York student leader Ilana Lazar recently wrote: “If you want to help the students, you must listen to our collective voices and stand alongside us, not in our stead. We have a lot to say, and we know best about what we are facing.” We are focused on inspiring every Jewish student in Ontario to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. We believe the best path to success is empowering students to lead the charge against campus anti-Semitism.

Last month, I was proud to see Jewish students at York University in Toronto marching through campus with their Israeli flags flying high, particularly given the anti-Semitic rhetoric that had been levelled against their participation in a campus multiculturalism event. This is exactly what we want to see more of – Jewish students feeling proud to be Jewish and undaunted in expressing their identity no matter what challenges they face. This is how Hillel Ontario builds the next generation of Jewish community leaders.

 While significant obstacles remain, we are confident in our students and we will always have their backs.