Tensions flared between pro-Israel and anti-Israel students at McMaster University in Hamilton last week after students protested a visit by a delegation of four Israelis whose aim was to promote their country’s diversity.
On March 12, four Israelis who are part of a project called Connecting Leaders in Communities (CLIC), which was established to promote Israel’s shared values with other democratic countries and to build partnerships, were brought to McMaster by a pro-Israel student group called Israel on Campus (IOC), with the support of McMaster Hillel.
McMaster Hillel president Lindsay Stitt said that when the four Israelis – a Palestinian-Israeli named Areen Haj Ahmad; a half-Christian, half-Jew named Hanna Larson; and two Jewish-Israelis named Sam Sank and Yona Melchers – set up a table in the student centre to allow students to ask them questions, one of the delegates was “mistreated” by students who opposed their message.
“Areen, the Palestinian-Israeli girl… had requested that she wanted to be represented by a Palestinian flag and asked if we could put that up. We said ‘No problem.’ I printed out a Palestinian flag and an Israeli flag, and we put them up,” Stitt explained.
“I was present for a conversation where Areen was told she should not have the flag at the table because she does not represent the oppressed Palestinian voices. When Areen said she works very hard in Israel for the rights of Palestinians who are not in Israel, she was told she should not have the flag up. She was spoken to in a very rude manner,” Stitt added.”
“At the tabling event, she was being mistreated, being told that she didn’t understand the issues, told that her flag doesn’t represent her.”
Raphael Szajnfarber, director of McMaster Hillel, said IOC and Hillel had planned an event for later that evening called Business Partners in Peace.
“It was to include a member of the delegation who is a Palestinian Arab Israeli [Ahmad] who would be speaking alongside a McMaster University professor, both of whom have experience using business as a tool to foster positive conversations and dialogue and co-existence,” Szajnfarber said.
He said Ahmad chose not to participate in the evening lecture because she felt too intimidated after the tabling session earlier in the day.
“She had received a lot of Facebook messages and she had been surrounded, and she told me personally, ‘I don’t feel comfortable speaking, I’m sorry,’” he said.
“She was called a traitor and was being bullied, and she ended up deactivating her Facebook account to stop the messages from coming in,” Stitt added.
Szajnfarber said the event went ahead without Ahmad.
In the hours following the tabling event, anti-Israel students began putting up posters around campus that contained an image pulled from CLIC delegate Sam Sank’s blog that showed him holding two flare guns in his Israel Defence Forces fatigues.
The posters contained a caption that said, “Not on our campus.”
The following day, about 75 students gathered in McMaster’s atrium, not far from the student centre, to hold a “die-in.”
“From the second floor of the atrium, there were paper planes that were dropped, and they were hitting people, and they were falling down as the paper airplanes hit them,” Szajnfarber said.
Although no campus group took credit for the protest or the posters of Sank, which were posted without authorization from the university, Szajnfarber suspects that Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) McMaster, a student group involved with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, was behind it.
“No group took responsibility, but all of the leaders of SPHR organized it and spoke at the protest,” he said.
SPHR did not respond to an interview request, but a post on the group’s Facebook page referred to the tabling event and posted the photo of Sank that was used in the poster.
“We are sorry that Israel on Campus felt it was appropriate to have these people leafleting in the student center… People like this don’t have a place on our campus. Our campus should never be a place of violence,” the SPHR Facebook posting said.
On March 23, a resolution that calls on the university to cut ties with Israeli institutions is scheduled to be tabled at the McMaster Student Union general assembly.
Szajnfarber wouldn’t reveal how Jewish and pro-Israel groups were going to respond to the upcoming vote, but said, “the rhetoric and environment created by the BDS topic, creates a really toxic campus environment and BDS… is a discriminatory movement.”