Hillel, CIJA say situation on campus has improved for Jewish students

McMaster University

Remember the window-smashing mini-riot at Concordia University a few years back that prevented Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on campus? Or the thuggish behaviour of anti-Semitic protesters at York University whose bellicosity and cries of “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus,” forced Jewish students to find refuge in Hillel’s campus lounge?

That’s so 2009. Today, the situation on campus is much better for Jewish students and other advocates for the State of Israel, say personnel from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and Hillel preparing for the school year ahead.

There are exceptions in some schools – McMaster University seems problematic – and there remains a hard core of anti-Israel activists on some campuses. So, to make it easier for Hillel professionals to help Jewish students cope with anti-Israel propaganda, CIJA held an advocacy training day recently as part of “Hillel professional development” at the Lipa Green Centre in Toronto. The day featured sessions on the challenges and opportunities faced by Hillels across the country, how to best promote the “shared values model” that links Canada and Israel, how to talk to the media, as well as primers on the core issues facing Israel today.

The training is meant to prepare Hillel advocates to better serve their student clients and supplement their knowledge of Jewish engagement with pro-Israel advocacy, said Judy Zelikovitz, vice president of university and local partner services of CIJA.

Despite the preparations involved in the training day, things are not as bad as they were only a few years ago, she stated. Zelikovitz, who spoke to 40 Hillel professionals at the PD day, said the negative message being delivered by Israel bashers has failed to resonate among Canadian students.

“Most tune it out, including our own kids,” she said. “Kids go to university to get an education, have a good time, find a spouse. They don’t go to fight those battles… Our job is to ensure kids get a safe experience on campus.”

That’s an assessment shared by Marc Newburgh, executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto and soon-to-be CEO of Hillel Ontario, which will bring together Hillel of Greater Toronto with Hillel centres in the rest of the province. 

“We obviously do have our challenges. There is anti-Semitism on campuses in Canada and the United States. We have no doubt about that,” Newburgh said. “But [Israeli Apartheid Week] has become a non-issue. It’s not getting the crowds or media attention. They’re preaching to their own.

“That’s good for us. It means the work by CIJA and Hillel over the last six, seven, eight years has been effective,” he said.

The organization’s strategy is not to get into “a spitting match” with Israel’s opponents, but to appeal to students “in the middle” who  don’t have a preconception about the conflict, he said.

Hillel personnel are being advised to promote the positive aspects of Israel as well as similarities between Canadian values and those in the Jewish state. They’re also being equipped to address falsehoods directed at Israel, such as claims of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, Zelikovitz said.

The BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, “is certainly happening on campuses.” It creates “angst” and is perceived by our community as prevalent, but “it’s really on the margin,” she added.

The movement has had virtually no success with business or government, so “now it is going after student unions, which is the low-hanging fruit,” Zelikovitz said. A relatively small number of students control student groups, though they claim to speaking for tens of thousands.

Overall, “way more positive things are happening on campuses,” Zelikovitz said. School administrations have made it clear they won’t tolerate intimidation, and they have worked to protect the rights of all students on campus and make it a place where all students are comfortable, she added. 

Nevertheless, Hillel is allocating a substantial portion of its resources to addressing Israel issues on campus. Half of the 20 people it can draw on in the Toronto area work on Israel advocacy and engagement. And they support other Hillels across the province, at Queen’s, McMaster and other campuses.

Newburgh said Hillel expects soon to add staff at McMaster and at the Hillel in Guelph. There is no one currently on the horizon to take on Hillel staff duties in Kitchener-Waterloo, but campuses there will be served by personnel from the Toronto office, he said.