A group at the University of Ottawa that promotes social justice and human rights discriminated against Jewish students by refusing to endorse or promote a Hillel event, says Raphael Szajnfarber, city-wide president for Hillel in Ottawa.
Hillel had invited a speaker, Israel Siriri, an African Jew, to discuss his community-based sustainable projects in Uganda, including a school for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth, Szajnfarber said.
He said Hillel approached a number of groups that might be interested in helping out in some way with the Nov. 20 event, including the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG).
“We were hoping that they’d be able to send out the information on their listserv and advertise the event for us,” Szajnfarber said, adding that Hillel didn’t ask for monetary contributions.
OPIRG denied Hillel’s request.
“This decision was made because of your organization and its relationship to apartheid Israel,” OPIRG’s board of directors wrote in an e-mail response to Hillel.
“Zionist ideology does not fit within OPIRG’s mandate of human right’s (sic), social justice.”
Szajnfarber said Hillel is not a political organization, but rather calls itself “the foundation for Jewish campus life.”
OPIRG board member Sarah King said the problem is not religious but political.
“We’re in no way against Jewish events,” she said. “I know it’s been said that we’re anti-Semites. That’s totally not true.”
However, Szajnfarber said he sees OPIRG’s actions as discrimination against Jewish students.
“The students of the university are funding this organization,” he said.
King said OPIRG receives a levy of $3.38 from each undergraduate student per semester, and $2.50 from each graduate students per semester, which can only be refunded during two designated weeks.
Students were able to opt out in the fall semester between Nov. 4 and Nov. 17, and the next opportunity students have is between March 3 and March 16.
“If they’re going to take stances that are very offensive to some groups – specifically in this case the Jewish students – I think this is something that should be… understood by all students,” Szajnfarber said.
“We stand for human rights, for social justice, environmental justice,” King said. “That’s why we support so many student groups on campus.”
One of the groups King named is the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR).
When asked why OPIRG supports SPHR and not Hillel, she said, “SPHR has been proposed to be an action group, while Hillel is an entity separate that would easily exist without OPIRG. SPHR came to us wanting to use our resources as an action group.”
Szajnfarber said that although Hillel is a Zionist organization that supports a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Siriri event was apolitical and had nothing to do with the Middle East.
“It was a success story of a Ugandan community group, which brings together kind of a multicultural array of Ugandans working together in a community,” he said. “If that’s political, I’m not sure what isn’t.”
Szajnfarber said Hillel isn’t satisfied with the OPIRG’s explanation for its refusal to promote the event and will be meeting with the group’s representatives about the issue this week.
He said he’s hoping for a public apology from the group for discriminating against Hillel.
“We think the way that they’re funded should be revisited,” he added.
“But more specifically, we want to be working with all campus groups, and we hope that they will revisit their policy of discrimination and not wanting to work with us.”