From Yoni’s desk: The unenviable choice of many pro-Israel students

From Yoni’s desk: The unenviable choice of many pro-Israel students

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Ryerson University campus. FACEBOOK PHOTO

Last week, the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy broke the story of Rebecca Katzman, a soon-to-be graduate of Ryerson University’s social work program, who was turned down by a campus coordinator when she requested a third-year placement at some of Toronto’s biggest Jewish institutions.

In this week’s CJN, Katzman revisits that troubling incident in her own words.

“In 2015,” she writes, “I asked Heather Bain, the third-year field education co-ordinator from the School of Social Work, to place me at UJA Federation, or the Prosserman JCC for my third-year social work placement. These organizations do a lot of great work for both Jews and non-Jews in our community, and they raise awareness about important social issues in our city. I thought they would be a natural fit.”

The co-ordinator’s response caught her completely off-guard.

“[Bain] responded in an email, saying, ‘I did not follow up with Prosserman JCC or UJA because, after looking into them, some of their values seem to be in opposition to the values of the school.’ She claimed both agencies have a ‘strong anti-Palestinian lean,’ and later suggested that I could only work with them if I came in with an agenda to ‘bring a critical awareness to the setting.’ It seemed that she implied that I could only work at these agencies if I came in with an anti-Israel agenda.”

READ: MIRA SUCHAROV: WHY I’M RESIGNING MY CJN COLUMN

Katzman could have grudgingly accepted the adviser’s decision, knowing she might very well need the help of school officials, like Bain, for letters of recommendation and even employment opportunities down the road. But to her great credit, she instead decided to take a stand. With the help of a pro-Israel student group, she fought back.

“I asked Bain to explain how she arrived at such an uninformed and unfair decision. She responded that she ‘chose not to follow up with the UJA’ … because of what ‘her colleagues from Jews Against Israeli Apartheid’ told her. She concluded by suggesting that she might change her decision if she heard that ‘both agencies (were) supporters of Palestinian solidarity movements.’”

But that didn’t deter Katzman. Instead, she told Bain she had set up an appointment with the school’s president to discuss the matter. That did the trick. Bain and her manager apologized and, last Friday, Ryerson published an open letter confirming that “Prosserman JCC and UJA are appropriate agencies to be considered for placement opportunities for Ryerson School of Social Work students.”

That’s a start. But it does not negate the chilling effect this ugly episode had on Katzman. “I have been forced to keep a secret since 2015,” she writes, “because I was afraid of how it would impact my academic career.” Sadly, that’s the experience of many Jewish and pro-Israel university students, who often face the unenviable choice of standing up for themselves at the risk of reprisals from educators and fellow students, or simply staying quiet.

Katzman made the right choice, and she should be congratulated for that. As she writes, “the more [Jewish students] tell our stories and hold our faculty and staff accountable… the better campus life will be for future generations.”  — YONI

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