As fire needs oxygen to survive, so too does the news cycle require controversy. However, in today’s social media world, in which outrage can spread like wildfire, the absence of oxygen can prove useful by smothering a story’s potential to inflame and provoke – leaving marginal events featuring marginal figures on the margins, where they belong.
Recent events at the University of Toronto demonstrate the downside of unwittingly supplying an endless dose of outrage – we ultimately end up burning ourselves.
On Feb. 26, U of T’s Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) voted to ratify its BDS Committee as a permanent body. The Jewish community was up in arms: the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center launched a petition addressed to the school’s administration, which collected more than 800 signatures in just over a week. Another organization, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) condemned the vote, as well.
BDS is a haven for anti-Semites, so such opposition is totally fair. Nonetheless, context matters. And nowhere is this less understood than in student politics.
In 2016, U of T’s student union was elected by under 10 per cent of the electorate. Apart from one recent vote, for which participation was nearly 25 per cent, virtually all such elections are insignificant, attracting between three and 10 per cent of students to the polls. Some votes fail to even crack single digits.
At the graduate level, the GSU does not even publicize its voting results – a recent query from the school newspaper, the Varsity, revealed that this year’s election featured a participation rate of just five per cent. These are the most activist students, for whom trigger-warnings, micro-aggressions and social justice are a religion.
In other words, we are talking about a fraction of a fraction of the student body. What benefits have the Jewish community accrued from its concerted magnification of such campus issues?
Norman Finkelstein’s recent speech at U of T caused a similar fervour. CAMERA, Hasbara Fellowships and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center circulated petitions, demanded the administration disavow Finkelstein and denounced the disturbing content of his work. The CJN and the National Post covered their efforts, as well as Finkelstein’s speech.
Again, Finkelstein’s anti-Semitism is well known. His history of questioning the “idea” of Holocaust survivors, defending deniers such as David Irving, supporting Hezbollah and commissioning an illustrator who participated in the Iranian Holocaust Cartoon Competition are irrefutable. But if not for the spotlight generously gifted by Jewish organizations, Finkelstein would have come and gone with little notice. Instead, Jewish leaders mobilized to outdo one another in condemning Finkelstein – and in the process gave his insane beliefs more publicity.
To be clear, my argument is tactical, not ethical. The only reason I ever heard about a fringe group of students numbering in the dozens passing a meaningless resolution is because of Jewish organizations and the Jewish press. But if the Jewish community’s aim is to diminish the importance of BDS and Finkelstein, it should not act as their chief publicists.
I can’t help but think that these incidents, and the responses to them, are symptomatic of a generational divide between young Jewish leaders and community elders. For those whose defining generational moments were the Holocaust and the Yom Kippur War – my grandparents and parents – every perceived injustice directed at the community must be confronted head-on. Critics will say that my desire to ignore campus developments is short-sighted and weak. Such anxieties stem from a place of genuine concern, but they are misplaced.
In the end, such publicity and outrage only serves to exaggerate, rather than deflate, movements like BDS and people like Norman Finkelstein. Ignoring – rather than igniting – the situation might seem counter-intuitive, but it is the best way to serve our community’s interests.