In February, 2010, Hashem Hamdy, the Canadian-raised son of an Egyptian father, found himself trapped in a riot. After a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was defeated during a meeting of the Carleton University Student's Association (CUSA) in Ottawa, a crowd of raucous pro-BDS students massed outside the conference room in which the proposal had been defeated.
Hamdy and other members of CUSA who had voted down the proposal were afraid to face chanting, enraged crowd outside. Security guards had to be called.
It was the first step of a journey that now finds Hamdy the Hasbara Fellowships regional coordinator for eastern Canada, an eloquent and relentless advocate for Israel, and an example of a growing awareness of North American college students that the anti-Israel movements on their campuses don't represent reasoned political advocacy. They represent hate.
"What I saw on campus was wrong and untruthful," Hamdy said. "It was the atmosphere of intolerance, [and] it was also the realization that essentially every Jewish student on campus was fair game."
Hamdy said Carleton University is the most politically active college in all of Canada, and is considered one of the most left-wing universities. He compared the atmosphere to the Davis and Berkeley campuses of the University of California.
Hamdy rattled off examples like someone who's taken the events for granted: The friends who've been chased through the streets by shouts of "Yahood, Yahood" ("Jew, Jew," in Arabic). The intensity and bigotry of the Israeli Apartheid Week. The list goes on.
But the final straw came when, only one a month after the near-riot at the CUSA meeting, his friend, Emile Scheffel, a non-Jew and only loosely affiliated with the pro-Israel community, became the target of anti-Semitic slurs during Scheffel's campaign for a position in the student union. The reason? Scheffel looks Jewish. He is of Czech heritage, and has dark hair and a pronounced nose. His banners were blue and white. That was enough.
"It was seeing how vitriolic and unpleasant the other side was that really drew me in," Hamdy said, arguing that even the apathy of college students can be penetrated when the true face of the anti-Israel movement shows itself.
Hamdy is careful to distinguish between "pro-Palestinian" and "anti-Israel." Yes, there are legitimate problems with Israeli policy and society, he said. But when he watched his friend suffer a rumor mill that used "Jewish" and "Zionist" as pejoratives, Hamdy learned firsthand the distinction between legitimate political advocacy and deeply bred bigotry.
Ben Singer, an assistant to Conservative Parliament member Peter Kent, who cut his advocacy teeth at the University of Western Ontario, describes Hamdy as one of the strongest advocates Israel has. Hamdy's story, Singer explained, shows that the fight for Israel on college campuses is exactly that: A fight.
It's not politics. It's judo.
"When they push with their power, find a way to turn it against them," Singer said. "When they assemble in large numbers, it's not a vigil or whatever, it's a riot. Call it what it is. Point out to those moderate students that... this is the inevitable consequence. There will be riots. There will be anti-Semitism. There will be discomfort on your campus."
Hamdy's own discomfort grew into a powerful drive to see Israel's image change for the better on his campus. There's no reason, he said, that other moderate students can't also travel the same path to pro-Israel advocacy.
"I've had people come up to me who say, 'Hashem, I really don't have any [opinion] one way or the other, but I can't believe the things they [anti-Israel groups] pull off, or the things that they try.'"
For Hamdy, that is the first step towards truth. Looking to the future, he hopes that pro-Israel students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, will not have to stand alone in an environment of intolerance. Because for Hamdy, the struggle is beyond the political fight.
It's about the truth.
"If there's something that you stand by, it's the sense of the truth," he said.
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