When retired pharmacist Murray Rubin took notice of the anti-Israel climate on Canadian campuses, he wanted to do something about it.
“I first got the idea that… Jews need allies because I looked at what is going on in our universities and it’s a matter of numbers. Jewish kids are vastly outnumbered,” he said.
He approached the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) with an idea to send Canadian students of Asian heritage to Israel on an educational mission, and went to work soliciting funds – $100,000 – from his peers at his tennis club.
He explained that having worked with a number of people of Asian heritage throughout his career, he came to understand that in general, anti-Semitism wasn’t as big of an issue in Asian countries compared to other parts of the world.
“I know that the whole world is not anti-Semitic. If it were, we would have disappeared a long time ago. The people who aren’t anti-Semitic, are… indifferent. This isn’t their problem. However, if we try, maybe we can get a few of them… to speak up for us,” Rubin said.
Judy Zelikovitz CIJA’s vice-president of university and local partner services, said CIJA has been organizing similar missions to Israel for about 10 years. Typically, the missions are geared toward Jewish and non-Jewish politicians and other Canadians with influence, but there have been trips that have sent students to Israel as well.
“Historically, participants in our missions have come back and become great friends to the community. One student came back a few years ago and single-handedly was responsible for overturning a [boycott, divestment and sanctions] vote on his campus in Regina, so we’re looking for people who are going to be genuine partners moving forward,” Zelikovitz said.
Last month, seven students of Asian descent – hailing from the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, the University of British Columbia, McMaster University and York University – took part in the seven-day trip.
The program included pre-and post-trip seminars, a seven-day study program in Israel, and a post-trip written assignment or creative project on a topic related to the program.
Some of the activities and sites visited included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Masada, Jaffa, the Knesset and Supreme Court, a Jerusalem security barrier, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
The speakers they heard from included former Israeli ambassador to China Amos Nadai; Canadian Ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici; Hebrew University law professor Allen Zysblat, who spoke about human rights and international law; and Ha’aretz’s chief military correspondent and defence analyst Amos Harel.
Tina Jiwon Park, a PhD candidate at U of T and co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect – an organization that aims to galvanize the international community to come to the aid of victims of genocide and other crimes against humanity – was one of the participants on the trip.
She said that because of the work she does through her organization, she was grateful for the opportunity to visit Israel and to learn more about the Holocaust and genocide education at Yad Vashem.
Park said that although the Middle East crisis is complex, she gained a deeper appreciation for the challenges Israel faces.
“Being of Korean origin, I can certainly understand what it’s like to be surrounded by hostile neighbours, and throughout this visit, I came to better appreciate the nuances and complexities of the strategic situation on the ground,” she said.
“I’ve only began to fathom the complexity of life in the Middle East, and this trip certainly helped to deepen my appreciation of the histories, events and different narratives that define Israel’s geopolitics… We hear so much about the tensions and conflicts in the media, but I also saw a lot of coexistence between different cultures, religions and people, which was really fascinating,” she said, adding that she was “struck by the vibrancy and diversity of culture throughout Israel.”
Rubin said he hopes participants will use the lessons they learned from the mission to inform others in their community about the reality in the Middle East and the scourge of anti-Semitism.
“The idea that people can say that Israel is an apartheid state is so sick that it makes me want to [send people] to go there and see. It’s ridiculous, but they get away with it.”