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A freshman guide to being Jewish on campus

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First-year university students who have been steeling themselves to face disruptive protests, aggressive die-ins and “apartheid walls” erected on leafy campuses, probably don’t need to worry, according to those familiar with campus life.

“There’s not often large-scale shows, or parades, or events on campus. That tends to get a bit overhyped,” said Noah Lew, a third-year student at McGill University in Montreal and vice-president of the campus Hillel chapter. “There are obviously a group of students on campus who express anti-Zionist views and for some students, they can see it on social media, or in the form of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) votes on campus, but I would argue 100 per cent that the primary experience of Jewish students is positive.”

‘The best time to defeat a BDS motion is a year before it happens’

While it would be naive to pretend that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism don’t exist on campus, the days of in-your-face guerrilla theatre are vanishing, according to Hillel directors, activists, students and professors.

“Many Jewish students arrive on university campuses having heard a great deal about anti-Semitism and Israel hatred on campus, but the problems often look different than what students are expecting,” said Robert Walker, the Canadian director of Hasbara Fellowships, an Israel advocacy group.


“The best advice I give to Jewish students is to be pro-active and not wait for an anti-Israel article to appear, or not wait for a BDS motion to appear. The best time to defeat a BDS motion is a year before it happens.”

And the best strategy, he suggests, is for students to build relationships with “influential non-Jewish student leaders,” so that when an anti-Israel issue arises, Jewish students are not perceived as “being opportunistic.”

‘A worrying new trend known as intersectionality is seeing Hillel and other Jewish groups shut out of social justice issues’

He also urges students to join the campus paper, or run for positions on student government, and work their way up through the ranks. It’s an effective strategy that anti-Israel students learned long ago and a critical one for Jewish students to master.

Finding allies on campus, and encouraging Jewish students to explore what they are passionate about and to become involved in university life, are the key nuggets of advice that Ilan Orzy, associate director of advocacy for Hillel Ontario, would give to first-year students.

“The issue of having representation in student government is actually very important for us. The more students we have involved, the more the rest of the students see us as allies, rather than the enemies our opponents paint us (as),” he said.

A worrying new trend known as intersectionality is seeing Hillel and other Jewish groups shut out of social justice issues, because of their support for the State of Israel, he said.

To counteract this, Hillel says students need to break out of the “Jewish bubble.” While Orzy encourages students to join Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus, he also stresses that it’s important to find what else they are interested in and join other clubs.

Hillel itself is breaking out of the bubble by sponsoring multi-faith Shabbat dinners, as a means of being an active participant in the university’s social justice life.

After the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque last winter, the University of Guelph’s Hillel chapter worked with Muslim students to sponsor a dinner to recognize the tragedy, he said.

Tamar Lyons, a third-year student at Ryerson University in Toronto, applies these lessons to her work as president of the campus group, Students Supporting Israel, and as a Hillel board member.

Students need “to stay strong and know what you believe in, even if people around you are making you feel like that’s wrong,” she said.  Last year, Lyons confronted the Ryerson student union, which engineered a walkout to defeat a motion to implement a Holocaust education week (the motion was later passed).

In addition to reaching out to Jewish student groups, she said it was also important to seek the help of senior administrators.

Tamar Lyons

At Ryerson, she said, the school’s president, Mohamed Lachemi, met with her the day after the walkout and his office helped her file a formal complaint. While the president at every university may not be as helpful as Lachemi was, students should take the opportunity to involve senior administrators, she said.

She also sees first-hand the importance of having strong allies in student government. After the student union passed a new, comprehensive definition of anti-Semitism earlier this year, Lyons learned the incoming student union was having doubts and seeking to repeal the motion.

‘The vast majority of students and faculty are not anti-Israel, but the minority who harbour these views can generate an outsized amount of attention’

Lyons says she is good friends with a number of the student union’s executive members and when she told them about the possible repeal of the motion, they quickly shut the idea down.

Despite the turbulence at Ryerson last year, Lyons says new students should not be concerned.

“Things sound a lot scarier in the newspaper and what you’re reading on Facebook than they are on campus,” she said.

“Yes, you’re going to be faced with anti-Semitic people. Yes, you’re going to be faced with people who are going to make claims about Israel that are going to make you feel uncomfortable. But be comforted by the fact that: one, it’s not every day; and two, you have the resources available and a great Jewish community on every campus.”

Even on a highly multicultural campus, like Toronto’s York University, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of students and faculty are not anti-Israel, however the minority who harbour these views can generate an outsized amount of attention, said Carl Ehrlich, director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.

Students also need to learn that not every battle needs to be fought, if it gives the offenders free publicity, he said.

“If it’s a case of people just expressing themselves peacefully in an inoffensive manner, but a position you disagree with, let them do it, because the minute you turn this into a confrontation, things can escalate very quickly and draw attention to what’s going on,” said Ehrlich.

That approach obviously does not apply to offensive or discriminatory statements or acts, he added.

And students need to be aware that anti-Semitism may sometimes be disguised as social justice. A case in point is a motion that has been circulating at York University, which calls for the university to divest itself from arms’ manufacturers. However, the motion is being promoted by BDS supporters and specifically targets the Israeli defence industry, Ehrlich said.

Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, which is on seven British Columbia campuses, says the prerequisite for membership in groups on campus, especially liberal ones, seems to be a hatred of Israel.

“If you try to separate that out, you will be politely, and sometimes not so politely, asked to leave the island,” he said.

As in Ontario, Hillel BC is working hard to develop strong relationships with other religious groups on campus, Rabbi Bregman said. “So when this BDS crap comes, the other side begins to see maybe this is not simply about Israel that has no connection to us in the university, it actually has a connection to these Jews that I know,” he said.

Even if students aren’t worried about confronting blatant anti-Israel protests in the quad, they can still face it in the place where they have the least amount of influence – the classroom.

Ehrlich says he doesn’t think professors often make anti-Israel or anti-Semitic comments, but it certainly occurs.

“I have no doubt that there are certain instructors who view the classroom as a bully pulpit,” he said. “Faculty should not be using the classroom as a place to indoctrinate a specific political position.”

The advice is unanimous about the wrong way to handle the situation: students shouldn’t go it alone and challenge the professor directly.

“I would never say to a student it is your job to stand there in the middle of a class and put your neck out going after the professor to defend Israel, or to defend Jews on campus,” Orzy said. “It is their job to do well in school and it is our job (at Hillel) to support them as much as possible and part of that support is going to bat for them and making sure the issue gets dealt with without their grades being affected.”

At the beginning of every school year, Rabbi Bregman sends out a letter asking students to report if they encounter anti-Israel statements in the classroom. Very few students do report and those who do often decline to make a formal complaint, usually bowing to their parents’ wishes not to make waves, he said.

“I can’t tell you how disgusted and sad I am about this. There’s an educational process that has to go on, not just with students, but with families,” said Rabbi Bregman.

But despite reports of anti-Semitic professors and new, insidious strategies being launched by student governments, the reality is that even the Canadian campuses that have been home to some of the most egregious incidents are a comfortable place for Jewish students, those familiar with university culture say.

Last year at McGill, a member of the student government tweeted that students should “punch a Zionist” and a campus newspaper admitted that it refused to publish any pro-Zionist commentary. But despite these highly publicized events, Noah Lew advises first-year students to come to Montreal and not to worry.

“The majority of McGill students are not anti-Semitic and are often allies, and are attending McGill for the same reasons all students want to go – to get an education, have a good time, maybe get involved with school and learn.” 

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