If you want to do nothing, talk about the problems. If you want to achieve something, talk about the solutions.
We all know that there have been many articles in this and other publications about BDS(boycott, divestment and sanctions), anti-Semitism on campus, and similar conversations. When articles about campus are written, very rarely are the authors current students, an issue I hope to rectify here.
I am finishing up my time at York University in Toronto, notoriously known in our community as not the friendliest place for Jewish students. To this dominant narrative I whole-heartedly disagree. During every year of my degree, I have been actively involved in the Jewish community on campus and played large roles in secular spaces, cultivating close ties with various clubs (cultural, political and others), faculty, administrators, and other important stakeholders. All of my experiences at York puts me in a perfect position to comment on this topic from the ground level.
The many CJN pieces providing a bird’s-eye view about student life are informative, but don’t give the full story. Let’s begin by providing a realistic, fact-based campus picture: No, campus is not on fire, not even at York. There isn’t a campus that Jewish students should be afraid of attending, nor one that they should attend, solely because they are Jewish. Yes, challenges do exist but they need to be addressed correctly and constructively.
What does “correctly and constructively” mean in this context? Here’s a quick list of what I’m not talking about:
- Running away from the issue, avoiding it, or excusing it
- Highlighting the issue without providing a reasonable and effective solution
- Asking for signatures, including from those not on campus, to a strongly-worded letter to the administration that could very much have negative ramifications on the relationship Jewish students have with those administrators
- Acting based on hearsay and rumours without seeking to understand the reality of the situation
- Stoking unnecessary competition between Jewish organizations that want to actually support students
- Ignoring the importance of building relationships with campus administration and organizations
But most of all, the most incorrect (and even destructive) way of addressing these challenges is by not including Jewish student representation in the decision making process. We need to be consulted because no one speaks for us better than ourselves.
For this reason, taking on a role as a student leader in the Jewish campus community is deeply important for students like myself. I am proud to serve as the vice-president of Jewish life of Hillel York’s student executive and to work toward ensuring that my Jewish peers feel safe and supported on campus. When issues arise on campus we tackle them together through the support we get from each other and the professionals who are with us on campus every single day. We have a physical place on campus to call our own because the Jewish community knows how important that is to us, and that place is filled with friendly individuals, staff and students alike, who strive to make sure our interests are served first and foremost. Anyone who walks into the Zac Kaye Lounge in the York Student Centre can see what a vibrant Jewish campus community looks like.
And I’m confident this isn’t only true for York. As a past member of Hillel Ontario’s Student Leadership Council, a group of student leaders from each of the nine campuses served by the organization, I met students from across the province, and while each campus has its own personality, style, and preferences, they are all well-supported and full of Jewish life.
The Jewish community in Canada at any university or college may be small, but we are strong thanks to the support we receive and the work we do together. We become even stronger when we move beyond our community and branch out. Supported by our staff, we build relationships with other clubs, faculty members, administrators and other important stakeholders every day. In particular, the deep and comprehensive relationships we have built with the York administration is nothing short of extraordinary: we finally have a University president, Rhonda Lenton, who takes our concerns seriously and takes necessary actions where she can. As just one concrete example, Lenton has endorsed the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, making it clear what is and isn’t anti-Semitic.
And thanks to the relationships we maintain and the outreach we do on a student-to-student level, we successfully brought out hundreds to mourn with us after the Tree of Life shooting last October in Pittsburgh. Had we been under an unending siege and constantly suffering at the hands of BDS activists, we could not have hosted a successful and meaningful event about anti-Semitism; it would have been co-opted or disrupted by others with more nefarious motivations. Nor would we have been able to march together in last year’s multicultural parade, hosted by the York Federation of Students, wearing shirts that clearly identified us as Zionists and holding Israeli flags.
But the biggest testament to the strength of our community may be my successful election to the York University Board of Governors as one of the two student representatives. Two years ago, the entire York student body, Jewish and otherwise, elected me to represent them. With this important position which gave me nearly half of the total votes cast and choosing me over a competitor who actively campaigned on her allegiance to the BDS movement. If that isn’t a win against BDS, I don’t know what is.
As I near the end of my term and my time at York, I am confident that the community we have here can withstand the challenges we have faced and continue to face, no matter what the student union voted on over six years ago.
It’s also important to point out that we also have great off campus organizations that support us. I have been actively involved with Jewish National Fund and StandWithUs who provide Jewish student activists with additional resources and support. Through all of these organizations, I am well-trained to deal with issues that come my way.
If you want to help the students, you must listen to our collective voices and stand alongside us, not in our stead. We have a lot to say, and we know best about what we are facing. There are numerous challenges, from BDS to anti-Semitism, for us to tackle on campus, and we have great support services to do so with. But if we continue to be reactive instead of creating proactive solutions, we will suffer a bigger defeat; one that stretches far beyond campus. It’s time our community moved beyond virtue signalling and accomplishing what feels good and shifted toward achieving what is truly effective.