Few students understand the importance of Israel advocacy like Leon Martynenko does.
Martynenko, originally from Ukraine, lived in Israel from 1996 to 2007 and served in the Israel Defence Forces before moving to Canada with his parents and enrolling at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus.
These circumstances make him a little older than most of his peers, and also far more knowledgeable about the political situation in the Middle East.
While his mandatory army service is over, his peers are still getting called up regularly to defend Israel on its front lines.
So he sees it not only as desirable that he speak up on campus on behalf of Israel, but as a moral obligation.
“I take it as my personal duty,” Martynenko said.
The need for advocacy became achingly clear back in 2009, during the conflict in Gaza.
“It was horrible what was going on in school,” he recalled.
Meeting StandWithUs Canada’s executive director Meryle Kates in the fall of 2012 convinced Martynenko to work with the organization, sharing the truth about Israel on his own campus and beyond.
“They provide a lot of material and quality training… I joined them from the very beginning,” said Martynenko.
Kates recalled: “Leon was one of the first students that I identified by a chance lucky meeting.”
Last fall, StandWithUs Canada was a brand-new offshoot of a 12-year-old organization started in the United States, which now has 17 chapters worldwide.
Martynenko was a perfect fit, Kates said.
“[He was] really committed to standing for and defending Israel on campus, and had absolutely no way to do it on his own,” she said.
The Mississauga campus had very few Jewish students, Kates added, and those who were there were felt “under assault every day by the kind of anti-Israel rhetoric that’s allowed to run rampant.”
The situation in Mississauga parallels that at York University and other universities across Canada, Martynenko said.
“There is a big population of students who are… trying to denounce Israel at any opportunity.”
He added that most university-aged students simply don’t feel comfortable standing up to powerful anti-Israel factions such as Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA).
They’re usually young and insecure about speaking with, or single-handedly trying to counter, these groups.
“It’s hard to speak against these people,” Martynenko said.
Anti-Israel activists “look very aggressive at times.”
Students also lack the knowledge to counter statements they may have already heard on campus and in the media.
StandWithUs Canada offers the security of a group setting – with tables and information boards for events – along with the winning weapon of knowledge – historical and political facts that answer the vocal naysayers’ claims.
“They provided pamphlets and other information so students can… educate other students, those who have no idea what Israel is,” Martynenko said.
Kates said there’s no other organization that offers students the kind of support that StandWithUs does.
“[We have a] focused mandate to simply empower students with the education and resource materials… to be able to speak about Israel in a way that will create positive impressions about the country,” she said.
“[Leon] embodies the philosophy and mission of StandWithUs… [he] is an inspiring young man I am proud to know and work with… a future leader in our Jewish community.”
Although he graduated with a double major in economics and the history
of religion, with a dual concentration in Judaism and Islam, Martynenko plans to take additional courses to prepare for a career in project management and business analysis.
He is currently working for Biblical Reproductions Inc., a Vaughan company that makes and imports authorized reproductions of Israeli archeological artifacts. He also volunteers with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, as well as other Jewish community groups.
Despite his busy schedule, Martynenko insisted he won’t drop the StandWithUs baton he’s carried for nearly a year.
“I started this on my campus, I cannot just walk away and drop responsibility on someone else. I will show up, and I will help them.”
The Canadian Jewish community must continue supporting StandWithUs Canada while it expands its operations onto more campuses, including U of T’s downtown campus, Ryerson University, York and further afield, Martynenko said.
Though university administrators may personally support Israel, they “will not speak out against specific… phenomena on campus.”
Freedom of speech means groups are free to spread lies regularly to an eager audience.
“In some cases, they have some very radical speakers on campus,” he said.
While event participants are generally students, Martynenko is certain they have powerful help from outside organizations advancing their own agenda.
Kates agrees: “We do believe that this [anti-Israel propaganda on campus] is funded by somebody else.”
Week after week, exposure to this level of negativity has an impact on all students, Jewish and non-Jewish, Martynenko said.
Unless they see and hear alternative viewpoints offering the other side of the story, “in a few years when these [students] become decision makers, it’s not going to look great.”