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We need to support York University’s Jewish community

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York University's Vari Hall FILE PHOTO
York University's Vari Hall FILE PHOTO

York University gets a lot of attention in the Jewish press. We, members of the Jewish Studies faculty, take this as a reflection of the Jewish community’s care and concern for our students and their education, the University, Jewish life, and Jewish Studies on campus.

Recent developments have led some to call on the community to cut itself off from York. We have reached the opposite conclusion: it’s time to thoughtfully and productively support Jewish students, Jewish organizations, and Jewish Studies at York. Our campus matters.

As professors, we strive to cultivate an educational space where our undergraduate and graduate students are enriched by deep and informed encounters, so that they will learn from and think critically about the social and political worlds of the past and present.

As is the case in all secular universities, Jewish Studies at York serves Jewish, partly-Jewish and non-Jewish learners. Our courses introduce and enhance students’ knowledge, lives and identities, and introduce and teach our extraordinarily diverse student body—a microcosm of Canada itself—a wide range of Jewish subjects, values, issues, and ideas. We teach history, literature, philosophy, religion, education, sociology, music, film, and culture, as well as Zionism, the Holocaust, Yiddish, Hebrew, Canadian Jewry, and Israel.

READ: FOR PRO-ISRAEL STUDENTS AT YORK, FREE SPEECH DOESN’T EXIST

For many of our students, these courses provide their only exposure to Jews and Judaism beyond pop culture. As researchers in Jewish Studies, our work contributes to the larger scholarly conversations in our respective fields. As publicly engaged scholars, we serve as a community resource in and around the University and the city, teaching, programming, writing, and lecturing all over the world. And as humanists, historians, social scientists, and educators, we know that racisms—including anti-Semitism—result from not recognizing, knowing or genuinely encountering the humanity of the “other.”

The solution to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campus surely is not to abandon campus. Rather, it is to double down on deep engagement with history and ideas, and to promote rich, real exchanges about ideas that matter.

York University is a world-class research institution with a historic, material, and continuing commitment to Jewish Studies, Jewish education, and Jewish life. We continue to work with the University’s administration to improve the atmosphere on campus and bolster Jewish Studies. That said, one issue of concern on campus is the York University Faculty Association’s (YUFA) recent endorsement of a student-initiated #YUDivest campaign calling on the University’s Board of Governors to “permanently divest from weapons manufacturers.”

We believe that the most important development amidst all of this is that YUFA actively and publicly distanced itself from the anti-Israel BDS sentiments (boycott, divestment, sanctions) associated with the original motion. YUFA’s preamble to the motion states explicitly that “the #YUDivest campaign does not advocate boycotts, divestment or sanctions against any state. Moreover, it proposes the elimination of all investments in munitions manufacturers currently held by the York endowment fund, and not those associated with any single country.” And: “We are also endorsing only the stated principles and causes of this campaign, not those that may be held or pursued by one or more of the many organizations that have also endorsed it or are associated with it.”

READ: JEWISH GROUP WARNS STUDENTS ABOUT YUDIVEST CAMPAIGN

Yes, the pretext and subtext of this divestment motion were clearly—albeit covertly—anchored in BDS activism. Yes, a distressing ambiguity lingers: to what extent does the motion mean something other than what it says? Nevertheless, over the past few weeks, York’s senior administration, YUFA’s president, and its faculty association have resisted anti-Israel agitation, acting on their good consciences, and thanks to the engagement and care that Jewish and non-Jewish students, faculty, and community partners have brought to bear on the discussion and the debate.

We continue to work to ensure that the faculty association will never endorse BDS. Despite the obvious and reasonable anxiety that has accompanied this debate, we believe that this preamble is a win for those who care about Jewish life at York. Successes will continue to come from engagement in our community—not retreat from it.

There has also been much discussion of late about the presence of a painting (“mural”) hanging in the Student Centre. The painting has become a symbol. To some, it symbolizes anti-Zionist activism and anti-Semitic sentiment deep within York’s culture. To others, it stands as a test case of free speech, academic freedom and student governmental autonomy. Copious media attention has only increased this symbol’s potency. We support President Shoukri’s vision of a campus that is fully inclusive and safe for serious learning.

We value and aim to foster freedom of expression, rigorous debate, and challenging ideas that provoke deep discussion on our campus. Nevertheless, the painting in question has marginalized many Jewish students. We imagine that the student body responsible for the Student Centre would already have removed a painting that distressed any other minority group.

READ: EXPERTS WEIGH IN ON PAUL BRONFMAN AND THE YORK MURAL CONTROVERSY

The painting affair and the armament divestment motion alike reveal both how high and how low the stakes are on matters of student and campus politics. The stakes are low because the vast majority of the York community is not especially invested in debating the politics of the Middle East. Much of our student body and faculty tune out the political noise surrounding them. Beyond our own local communities, motions and paintings like these have negligible impact.

Yet the stakes are high because the contours of this debate shape our campus community, its culture, and the personal relationships among students, faculty members, and administrators. These matters have sown unwelcome divisiveness. The stakes are also high because the opinions that students form, the relationships they build, and the knowledge they gain during their undergraduate studies form the foundations of the rest of their political lives. We take these high stakes very seriously; they speak precisely to why the presence of Jews, Jewish life and Jewish Studies on campus are so important.

The solution is not to give up, divest from, abandon, or add fuel to the fire at York. It is to invest positively in Jewish students, Jewish life, and Jewish Studies. We invite everyone to our campus events, lectures and to audit our classes. Come and engage the richness of Jewish life and learning at York University.

To learn more about what we do, click here.

Signed,

Ahouva Shulman, Associate Professor of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics.
Belarie Hyman Zatzman, Associate Professor of Theatre.
Brian Katz, Adjunct Professor of Music.
Carl Ehrlich, Professor of Humanities, Director of the Israel & Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies (KCJS)
Carol Zemel, Professor Emerita of Art History and Visual Culture.
David Koffman, Assistant Professor of History.
Judith Cohen, Adjunct Professor of Music.
Judith Shapero, Adjunct Professor of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics.
Kalman Weiser, Silber Family Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, Humanities and History.
Laura Wiseman, Koschitzky Family Chair in Jewish Teacher Education, Associate Professor of Education and Humanities.
Linda Lipsky, Adjunct Professor of Humanities.
Martin Lockshin, University Professor of Humanities, Former Director of the KCJS.
Maynard Maidman, Professor of History.
Menachem Feuer, Adjunct Professor of Humanities.
Michael Brown, Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Former Director of the KCJS.
Randal Schnoor, Adjunct Professor of Social Science.
Ruby Newman, Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies.
Sara Horowitz, Professor of Humanities and Languages, Literatures & Linguistics, Former Director of the KCJS.
Shelley Hornstein, Professor of Architectural History & Visual Culture.
Yedida Eisenstat, Sessional Assistant Professor of Humanities.