HAMILTON — As universities across the country try to defuse hostilities between pro-Palestinian groups and Jewish students, McMaster University in Hamilton has brokered a peace deal that it hopes will lessen tensions.
The “McMaster Peace Initiative” was signed earlier this month by university president Peter George and representatives of McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice, the Jewish Students Association, the Muslim Student Association, Israel on Campus and the McMaster Jewish Faculty Association.
The groups have agreed that in the event of any hate or intimidation incidents, the promotion of hatred, property damage or acts endangering the safety of others on campus that a joint response will be issued to condemn the act. The agreement also includes plans to foster balanced discussion on Mideast issues.
“We decided to do something no one else had thought to do before: speak to the groups and bring them together,” said Milé Komlen, director of McMaster’s office of human rights and equity services. “Instead of demonization and dehumanization, this puts a face on the other. It engages the groups to move to understand each other.”
Komlen said future steps might include course work on the Middle East conflict or summer sessions on peace studies, as well as engaging the mainstream campus community in a “solution-finding process.”
Hamilton police ran a hate crimes investigation into incidents last year at McMaster during Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Held annually at campuses around the world, the event likens Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during the apartheid era.
At McMaster, pro-Palestinian students handed out what was perceived by many Jewish students to be “inflammatory” literature. Orders for a banner to be removed led to demands for free speech from anti-Israel event organizers, who held a protest rally over the issue.
At the rally, protesters allegedly intimidated a number of Jewish students, with some people yelling slogans such as, “Death to Jews” and “Viva jihad.” Some students were also allegedly accosted in the library by protesters.
Police couldn’t proceed with charges, however, as they couldn’t gather enough proof of individual identity or motive.
This year’s IAW events earlier this month at McMaster were toned down, which some attribute to the peace initiative.
But Dr. Lawrence Hart, a CJN columnist as well as an associate professor in the school’s faculty of health sciences and president of the McMaster Jewish Faculty Association, is troubled by the very name of the event.
“We had difficulty trying to impress upon the administration the abomination of the terminology ‘Israeli apartheid’ and how offensive and hurtful it is to Jewish students,” said Hart, who is a native of South Africa. “If they are not willing to move aside from that, until then, no document is going to be enforceable.”
Komlen described the IAW event as a way for student groups to bring attention to their issues.
“It may be offensive to certain communities, but it’s in the context of a university and freedom of expression,” he said.
Despite his concerns, Hart signed the peace initiative document and said that he hopes it will help the university community “get away from the demonization and delegitimization of Israel and move on to scholarly discourse.”
He added that “it indicates a commitment on the part of the administration to do things differently” and said “great credit goes to the administration for taking part in this process. We really made some progress – as long as the principles and spirit of the document are respected.”
He cautioned that the litmus test will be whether the document is enforced.
With news last week that York University is forming a task force to find ways to solve conflicts between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian factions on that campus, Komlen hopes McMaster’s initiative will be a model for other institutions.
“We are eager to provide an example of what can be done when groups come together in a good faith effort to embrace their differences and engage in difficult discussions,” he said. “People at McMaster are optimistic it may promote a lot of hope for students and the broader community. The hard work begins now.”