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Friday, August 29, 2014

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Carleton praised for tackling Jews’ unease

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Roseann O’Reilly Runte

Jewish groups are praising Carleton University for recognizing the concerns of some Jewish staff and students about an antisemitic atmosphere on campus and for pledging to implement recommendations in a new report on the problem.

The Commission on Inter-Cultural, Inter-Religious and Inter-Racial Relations on Campus began collecting information in 2010 in response to growing tensions at the Ottawa school. Its final report – which also addressed issues facing aboriginal staff and students – suggested that for the most part, Jewish students and professors responded less positively than their non-Jewish counterparts when asked about the climate of respect on campus.

The commission sent out two surveys – one to Carleton’s roughly 30,000 staff, students and faculty that received about 2,000 responses, and a second follow-up questionnaire for Jewish faculty, staff and students that was answered by 135 people.

The commission found that Jewish students, particularly those who are easily identified as Jewish, view public spaces on campus as somewhat unsafe or unwelcoming. Some also said they have experienced disrespectful comments about their religion stemming from anti-Israel sentiments.

Carleton’s undergraduate and graduate student associations have both taken public stances against Israel in the past, which has led some Jewish students to feel excluded from these representative bodies, the commission noted.

Additionally, Jewish students said they sometimes feel excluded in classes because of what they say is a lack of balanced debate about Israel.

Carleton president Roseann O’Reilly Runte declined to comment to The CJN on the 11-page report. She did, however, release a statement detailing some of the actions she said the university will take based on its recommendations, such as reminding deans, chairs, and directors to be mindful of Jewish holidays so that no meetings are scheduled on them.

“As a progressive and open university, we must aim to make every visitor to campus, every scholar, all who live and work here, feel valued and respected,” she wrote.

The commission also recommended that Carleton set up an interfaith council, as well as a Jewish issues committee.

In addition, Runte said the university will make “make support services and mechanisms for the airing of concerns better known.”

Zane Colt, citywide president of Ottawa’s Israel Awareness Committee, called Carleton’s creation of the commission an unprecedented action by the university in taking responsibility for the student body, and in recognizing problems on campus and trying to solve them.

“[The university] should be applauded for the initiative,” he said, noting that few universities have ever taken such a move.

Colt, a third-year student in public affairs and policy management, said he has experienced feeling uneasy in classes at Carleton.

“There are professors in classrooms that try to present one side of the issue, and it makes students that are Jewish and pro-Israel feel very threatened,” he said, citing guest speakers who only present one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“By all means, I like debate, I encourage debate, but this is when that debate crosses the line and becomes hateful, harassment and intimidation,” he said, acknowledging that it’s not the majority of the campus population, but marginal anti-Israel groups that go too far.

Runte has called out such groups in the past. In March 2011, students who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel disrupted a board of governors meeting to the point where it had to be cancelled, since board members were blocked from entering.

“Those who have said they will interrupt meetings until they have their way are participating in inappropriate bullying tactics,” Runte wrote at the time in an email sent to students and faculty.

Two years earlier, the university banned posters advertising Israeli Apartheid Week that Carleton’s equity services office deemed were in violation of Carleton’s human rights policy.

Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, also praised the administration. “It’s not a factor of a freedom of speech,” he said. “It’s a factor of creating divisiveness on campus and marginalizing the Jewish students.”

David Koschitzsky, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the problem extends beyond Carleton to other universities, adding that Carleton has set an important example for how other schools can approach the issue.

“As disgusting as the anti-Israel rhetoric can be, the core problem is that, from time to time, this rhetoric has devolved into harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students,” he said.

Runte’s statement said the university will “continue to discuss the question of respectful behaviour in all public spaces on campus with student leaders and together we will find ways to make all feel welcome.”

Not everyone is happy with the report.

Carleton sociology professor Peter Gose told the Charlatan, a campus newspaper, that it failed to distinguish between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

“We don’t think that there’s anything inherent in being Jewish that obliges Jews to oppress Palestinians, to engage in these acts. This is behaviour, not identity,” Gose told the paper.

In a letter to the Ottawa Citizen, he called the commission “the Runte administration’s latest attempt to silence debate on the Palestinian question at Carleton.”

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