TORONTO — When Adir Krafman and Esther Mendelsohn looked around the University of Toronto campus last year, they decided they weren’t satisfied with the way many students were talking about Israel.
The pair felt it was time to create a response that would give students of all backgrounds a chance to learn about and engage in discussion about Israel. In November of last year, Israel on Campus (IOC) at U of T was born, and last February, it received official recognition as a student group.
“We started this out of concern for the reputation of Israel on campus, and we wanted to open a student front to challenge anti-Israel initiatives on our campus,” said Krafman, 21, the group’s internal officer and a fourth-year computer science and international relations student at U of T.
IOC is an independent student group with the sole mandate of talking to students about all aspects related to Israel. Its kickoff event was this past March, when, with sponsorship from Hillel, it brought popular television host and columnist Michael Coren to speak on campus about the Middle East.
Last month, the group held its first ever Israel Week with the support of a private donor. “This year, we’re focusing on humanitarian aid and bringing attention to Israel’s disproportionate contributions,” said Mendelsohn, 26, treasurer of IOC and history student at U of T.
Israel Week’s main event was a talk from cardiologist Dr. Gil Gross from the Hospital for Sick Children, who volunteered in Africa with Israeli-based organization Save a Child’s Heart, and from Zaki Djemal, the North American regional director for IsraAID, an Israeli international humanitarian aid organization.
IOC holds weekly meetings on campus, and brings upward of 40 students to their events, said Krafman. “Our events are targeted not only at Jewish and Israeli students, but also the non-Jewish community on campus, particularly our classmates and other unaffiliated students,” he said. Mendelsohn added that IOC “actively seeks out partnerships with different student groups and organizations.”
Although U of T tends to be a comparatively calm campus when it comes to the Mideast debate, it is the birthplace of Israeli Apartheid Week, and Krafman and Mendelsohn said that honest and nuanced discussion about Israel helps to keep students informed during times of anti-Israel activity.
The two stressed the importance of engaging students who want to talk politics, too. “We use political discussions as opportunities to introduce moderate views into an often polarized discourse,” said Krafman.
But IOC is not just about politics, said Mendelsohn. “We do everything – cultural, social, political, educational.”
For IOC, one of the most important things is that it’s students reaching out to other students. “Having a grassroots student-run group is essential on our campus because it allows us to speak to students eye-to-eye and to take part in internal student affairs,” said Krafman.
Despite the generally neutral political atmosphere on campus when it comes to Israel, Mendelsohn has concerns about the positions taken by some members of the campus community. “Even though the U of T administration has always been fair and balanced, UTSU [University of Toronto Students’ Union] has openly given its support, including financial support, to anti-Israel campaigns – something we have vocally opposed,” she said.
She added that IOC is the ideal way to advocate for Israel at the University of Toronto “because no one understands our campus better than us – we know exactly what the challenges are and how to deal with those challenges effectively.”