MONTREAL — From a discussion with a Mohawk leader in a traditional longhouse at Kahnawake to an exchange with a justice at the Supreme Court in Ottawa, 10 Israeli university students were given an intensive introduction to Canada.
These law students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Hebrew U) and 10 McGill University law students were participants in a new summer exchange program in human rights law.
The young Israelis and Canadians spent a month together in Montreal, three weeks of that in the classroom at McGill taking five one-credit courses in Human Rights and Armed Conflicts given by McGill and Hebrew U professors.
Although the perspective was global, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict inevitably came up, but considerable attention was also paid to the Canadian military experience in Afghanistan, and in particular, the questionable transfer of detainees to the Afghan security forces.
This was the joint program’s second edition. In August 2011, a different group of McGill students spent a similar period at Hebrew U’s Mount Scopus studying with their Israeli counterparts about competing rights in diverse societies.
This year’s McGill cohort was a diverse group, the majority not Jewish, and the Israelis, although all Jewish, held a wide spectrum of political views. They included both a veteran of an infantry unit who had seen combat, and a conscientious objector, said McGill professor René Provost, who co-chaired the program with Prof. Tomer Braude of Hebrew U.
The courses covered such topics as the war on terror, peacekeeping, and children, as either victims or participants in conflict.
An encounter in Quebec City with an officer of the Royal 22nd Regiment, an Afghan war veteran who is also a lawyer, was especially enlightening for all participants, as was one with a federal Department of National Defence judge-advocate involved in the detainee transfer issue.
“The students asked many questions, hard questions,” Provost said.
The students got along well. “There was a good rapport. It was wonderful to see the chemistry develop over their weeks together… The discourse was very open and wide ranging, but always rational and respectful.”
The chance for Canadian and Israeli students to interact both academically and socially attracted McGill student Daphnee Vasseur to the program.
“Due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the compulsory military service in Israel, I thought the Israeli students would bring an interesting first-hand perspective on armed conflict,” she said.
“The program was one of my best experiences of law school. Overall, we integrated with one another quite easily as everyone was very friendly,” she added, and both sets of students were interested in learning about the others’ country.
Vasseur said her understanding of Israel, especially its people’s varying national and political identities, deepened.
“With so much exposure to news media concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is so often easy to generalize a nation’s people and believe they all think this one way and all subscribe to this one political platform.
“However, by having the opportunity to engage in politically and socially charged conversations with the Israeli students, I was able to grasp the richness of the diverging opinions and views that Israelis hold.”
While she appreciated the academic content, Hebrew U student Noa Bornstein found most interesting the time spent informally with the Canadians and learning their differing views of their own country.
“Before… I thought that Canada and the United States were much alike. I thought Canada was just a lesser-populated version of the U.S.,” Bornstein said. “I now realize I was totally wrong. The Canadian people are really different and, in many ways, they remind me of Israelis – just much more polite. I know it’s a cliché, but I think it’s true: Canadians are so nice.”
One suggestion she has for future programs is to get the students acting in the community more. They visited a legal clinic at Project Genesis, and she said the students would have liked to do something like that.
Montreal offers the opportunity to learn about the everyday concerns of immigrants and refugees, many from armed conflict, Bornstein noted.
The program is run jointly by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and Hebrew U’s Minerva Centre for Human Rights. Plans are underway for its third edition next year in Jerusalem.
Almost the entire cost of the program, including the students’ international travel and accommodation, is covered by the universities, largely through private donations. The Quebec Ministry of International Relations and, for the first time this year, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada also contribute.
Provost sums up the value of the program this way: “The students are getting a rare experience. There are not many programs where they get to spend a month with students [and faculty] from another country looking at global issues… For the McGill students, this was a way of demystifying a country that is represented in a certain way in the media.”
But it’s more than that. Provost said McGill is “investing significant financial resources… [and], in a public way, is taking a strong stand that the academic boycott of Israel is completely misconceived and cannot be defended.”