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Robin: Israel’s academic community won’t tolerate anti-Semitism

Students stroll through the University of Toronto campus. (Nayuki/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Just when we thought that we’d seen it all regarding the ascent of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism on campus, McGill University’s student society has called on a Jewish student leader to resign as a member of the Student Society of McGill University’s legislative council and board of directors for accepting a trip to Israel and the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

Jewish student leader Jordyn Wright said that on Nov. 28, her school’s student society threatened her with impeachment if she goes on the trip sponsored by the campus Hillel and scheduled for the end of December. As a non-Jewish councillor also planning to be on the trip did not receive the same treatment, Wright called her singling out as “anti-Semitic.”

Since then, the university’s deputy provost of student life and learning, Fabrice Labeau, called the student union attempt to oust Wright “contrary to the university’s values of inclusion, diversity and respect” and diverging from the student union’s constitution.

In a similarly anti-Semitic incident on a Canadian campus last month, the Graduate Student Union at the University of Toronto (U of T) took this theatre of the absurd to new heights through its characterization of kosher food as “pro-Israel”.

In light of much criticism of this statement from the Jewish community, both in Canada and in Israel, the union apologized for “unintentionally caus(ing) harm toward the Jewish community.”

The anti-Semitic nature of each of the union decisions on the two Canadian campuses is quite clear. Discriminating against and excluding students because they are Jewish is blatant discrimination. Likewise, there is nothing “pro-Israel” about providing for and protecting Jewish students, and even so, being pro-Israel is a matter of free speech. It is the university’s job to protect all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or beliefs.

Unfortunately, in the latter case, the union’s apology causes just as much concern as the original statement. It failed to communicate why the statement was so problematic, and more importantly, it failed to take responsibility for speaking out against anti-Semitic rhetoric, showing just how out of touch the university truly is.

Israeli university presidents like myself comprehend that the threat of anti-Semitism to North American Jewry is as severe are ever. We wholeheartedly agree with U of T Hillel’s assertion that their union’s apology for “unintentionally” harming the Jewish community on campus did not address the anti-Semitic nature of the original comments. Whether the messenger’s impact is “intentional” or “unintentional,” the classification of kosher food as “pro-Israel” illustrates just how far the BDS movement has come in terms of zeroing in on its actual objective — suppressing the freedom of speech and freedom of religion of Jews, not merely levelling criticism at the State of Israel and its policies.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised about skyrocketing anti-Semitism at a time when survey data from Schoen Consulting shows that more than half of Canadians don’t know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.

On campuses in North America, physical attacks, threats, bullying, destruction of property, genocidal expression, suppression of speech and exclusion of Jewish and pro-Israel students from campus life are more rampant than ever, with Israel-related incidents creating a hostile campus environment for Jewish students.

The “new anti-Semitism” is rampant on college campuses through the vehicle of movements like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, including at U of T, where the Graduate Student Union voted in 2012 to support BDS.

At U of T, we believe actions speak louder than words — and the union’s pro-BDS stance has disturbingly surfaced once again in its latest remarks. Boycotting kosher food, and therefore Jewish life on campus, is taking this bigotry yet another step too far.

Likewise, at McGill University in 2017, the university had to investigate charges that pro-Israel students were barred from its student union board because of their Jewish identity and affiliation with Jewish organizations. The same year, the council failed to impeach a member who urged followers on Twitter to “punch a Zionist today.”

Israel’s academic community must embrace its responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitic rhetoric and behaviour on campuses overseas — especially when religious belief and support for the State Israel are so absurdly conflated, as they were in this controversy surrounding kosher food.

Traditionally, North American Jewish advocacy groups have led the fight against BDS. But if Israeli university leaders do not stand up for Jewish student communities worldwide when they are subjected to anti-Semitic attacks, which are rooted in hatred of Israel, then who will? Israel’s own voice must be heard in this discourse.