Every year during the first week of school, McMaster University’s Hillel hosts a barbecue to welcome students. This year, we were thrilled to see a huge turnout. But it was clear the atmosphere was a little more tense than in previous years.
One first-year student asked whether it was safe to wear a kippah on campus.
“My mother told me not to wear my Star of David necklace,” another told us.
A third asked: “Can I tell my roommate that I’m Jewish?”
The cause of their anxiety was obvious. In March, at the McMaster Students’ Union general assembly, a motion was put forward calling on the student government to support the boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Understandably, the motion made Jewish students nervous.
We knew we needed to take action. So, with the assistance of our Hillel director, Raffi Szajnfarber, we undertook a proactive campaign to combat the BDS campaign at McMaster. We are proud to say the strength of our community, and the quality of our Jewish leadership grew noticeably stronger when we needed it most. At the general assembly, a non-binding vote in support of the BDS motion passed after the meeting had officially ended. But since the vote was non-binding, it has no influence on our student government’s policy.
We are not naïve. We expect the BDS campaign to return to campus this year. And while we know this will be a difficult and frustrating experience, we are planning to combat it in the way we see most fit for our community. We want to reclaim the right of all Jewish and Zionist students to be proud and confident of their identity on campus.
Dealing with anti-Israel activity on campus is often difficult because it has both internal and external implications. Although fighting for Israel and Jewish student rights is something we are proud to do on behalf of the community, we also want to ensure that the close, welcoming, and unique Jewish community at McMaster continues to flourish.
As Jewish student leaders, we know that we bear responsibility toward the larger Jewish community. Nonetheless, we are first and foremost concerned with ensuring that our own student community continues to thrive and is one in which students can be proud to celebrate their Jewish identity.
We are succeeding not only in our external goals, but also in our internal goals. Recently, we ran a program that offered Jewish students an opportunity to discuss their feelings about this summer’s Israeli conflict in Gaza. The event was immensely successful, attended by students representing various political opinions within the spectrum of Zionism.
As a community, we created a safe space for students to both praise and appropriately criticize Israel. The discussion was open and constructive, with students growing both as a community and in their individual Zionist identities. Future programs like this will continue to strengthen the identities of Jewish students.
We want to emphasize that McMaster is not only a safe environment for Jewish students, but that it is also a place where Jewish student life can excel. While dealing with anti-Israeli sentiment on campus is often stressful and overwhelming, we can confidently say McMaster is a safe place for students to proudly identify as Jewish and pro-Israel.
We will continue to encourage Jewish students at McMaster to grow and form their own Jewish identities. We believe that in so doing, as well as proactively responding to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic initiatives, we can help McMaster become a leading example for campuses combating these issues.
Lindsay Stitt is president of McMaster University’s Hillel. Sean Haber is president of McMaster Israel on Campus.