With many people justifiably worried about the constant attempts to delegitimize Israel on college campuses, especially in Canada, we should highlight some successes.
Recently, we have seen that being creative, passionate and edgy can help reframe the conversation about Israel. The key is to be clever, not defensive, and to master your own particular strategic terrain.
In early February, McGill University students mobilized against an unfair and misleading resolution being proposed by their student society. There has long been an unspoken ceasefire on the McGill campus, with both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli forces holding their fire, being more committed to the tradition of civility on campus – and, frankly, to the more academic atmosphere overall. A year ago, pro-Palestinian forces broke this deal, by proposing a resolution condemning Israel’s Gaza operation. Pro-Israel students mobilized and voted it down at the student society’s General Assembly.
Last Passover, pro-Palestinian forces became even more aggressive, planting 1,415 Palestinian flags and 13 Israeli flags in the central green space on campus, supposedly representing the disproportionate death toll during Israel’s Gaza operation. This dramatic display sought to politicize the entire campus environment.
The administration should never have allowed this break with tradition, which threatens to have every other group try similar antics. I have no desire to come to work and be bombarded by one undergraduate attempt after another seeking to dramatize whatever issues is trendy one season or the next.
Undeterred, the pro-Palestinian forces this year cooked up a seemingly harmless resolution demanding McGill invest ethically, which actually was a one-sided resolution targeting Israel. Although the General Assembly votes only on the “be it resolved” clauses, two “whereas” clauses singled out Israel for special opprobrium. This was an attempt to get the many people who support ethical investing to condemn Israel implicitly. Pro-Israel – and pro-civility – forces rejected these unfair terms. At the General Assembly, they voted down the two offensive (and historically inaccurate) “whereas” clauses, then passed the resolution.
Similar out-of-the-box thinking shaped a controversial web-based ad campaign, launched by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students. Critics have called the “size doesn’t matter” video crude, vulgar and sexist. It is certainly crude and vulgar; I’m not sure if it’s sexist. But it’s also funny, attention-grabbing and speaks to college students in their language, with their sensibility. We want to speak to the “more than 80 per cent of students on a given campus who haven’t made up their minds about Israel and the Middle East,” one of the project’s creators, Noah Kochman explained. The video, which received more than 18,000 hits in its first few days, is a lure to get students learning facts about Israel.
As a professor, I wish my students got references to Aeschylus and Agamemnon. But if I want to be understood, I have to speak about Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods. Similarly, it would be great to live in a G-rated world, but our students live in an R-rated one. Kochman and his team shrewdly recognized that and spoke that language.
In a far more respectable vein, Peter Shurman, a Progressive Conservative legislator in the Ontario provincial legislature, refused to be passive in the wake of the anti-Israel week targeting campuses. Explaining that resolutions in the legislative assembly “do one thing only: they send a message, moral suasion pertinent to any given subject,” he proposed a resolution regarding something “I am passionate about” in late February. Shurman rose in chambers on Feb. 24, proclaiming: “I move that in the opinion of this House, the term Israeli ‘Apartheid Week’ is condemned as it serves to incite hatred against Israel, a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights, and the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in this context diminishes the suffering of those who were victims of a true apartheid regime in South Africa.” The resolution passed unanimously – and was applauded worldwide.
Edmund Burke famously noted, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” These examples show that when good people do something, evil can be defeated, or at least, rebuffed.