How concerned should we be about the way Jewish students are treated on campus and their ability to be comfortable there while being outwardly Jewish?
Last year in particular, we were treated to a litany of concerns, with our emotions impacted greatly by stories suggesting that many, or perhaps most, Jewish students are uncomfortable as Jews on campus, a perception that was augmented by the saga of the now-famous pro-Palestinian mural in York University’s student centre. Indeed, in response to our anger and fears, significant dollars were invested by many who have responded to students concerns and fears.
But what is really taking place on campus? How can we know, beyond reading selective reports about specific situations that may or may not reflect the whole? There is no overall study that measures the comfort level of Jewish students on campus under different circumstances. Perhaps there should be. How comfortable are Jewish students being quietly Jewish, outwardly Jewish, or “activist” Jewish on our campuses? And where are the levels of comfort highest, or lowest?
With no study to point to, we are in the domain of the unknown, and that offers the opportunity to wonder and worry, to see catastrophe, and to focus our natural (and well-earned) paranoia as a people on our campuses as we respond to specific events and stories without the ability to moderate our feelings with facts.
Most of the Jewish media and organizational focus has been on student activism – on the anti-Israel militants who intrude on the student landscape masquerading as those who wish to do good in support of the Palestinians while conveniently ignoring the billions of downtrodden souls in the world who deserve – indeed require – their support far more than do the Palestinians, whose leaders continue to steal or squander the enormous sums of money foisted on them by a clueless international community.
As empty-headed as their reasoning is, there is a movement among students – with support from many TAs and some professors – that takes action from time to time through student governments via BDS resolutions and various days of Palestinian hero worship. This movement, while irritating, is actually not terribly effective, nor is it noticed by most people, except to the extent that our own organizations create a media circus out of what is being said or done.
What’s of greater concern are the words and deeds of some professors who, under the guise of academic freedom and with the power of tenure (making it virtually impossible to fire them), use their pulpits irresponsibly, not to attack of Judaism as such, but to attack Israel.
Yet given the strong correlation between being Jewish and supporting Israel, these attacks put students who find themselves in the wrong classroom in a quandary, as objections to these professors’ negative messaging can lead to public put-downs, lower marks and various other forms of abuse that are not easily traced or attacked. Indeed, this problem is hardest to detect and most challenging to deal with.
In the absence of a definitive study – something I’m told is being considered, but which is fraught with challenges – the best information can be gleaned from people on the ground and in touch with the largest number of Jewish students on campuses. Hillel of Ontario, for instance, has professionals at most Ontario universities who interact with students daily, as do staff from other organizations such as Stand With Us and Hasbara Fellowships.
From staff and from students, we can come closest to the truth.
Michael Diamond will be moderating a panel discussion titled “Jewish life on campus: what is the real story?” at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Panelists will include Marc Newburgh, CEO of Hillel Ontario; Sara Lefton, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs; as well as one knowledgeable Ryerson University student and one Hillel staff member.