A red rose lies at Gleis 17 (platform 17) holocaust memorial at a former cargo railway station in Berlin-Grunewald.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In late November, Jewish students from Hillel and Students Supporting Israel at Toronto’s Ryerson University submitted a motion for consideration by the undergraduate student union’s annual general meeting that called for the inception of student-run programming for Holocaust Education Week.
Unfortunately, the motion was opposed by students from Ryerson’s Muslim Student Association (MSA ) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), who incidentally, passed a successful motion to endorse BDS in 2014. The NO side argued that it was “exclusive” to other minority groups and did not consider the genocide of the Palestinians.
Before the motion could be put to a vote, the MSA , SJP and their supporters vacated the room, taking enough people with them that the meeting lost the necessary quorum, effectively blocking the vote, and shutting down the entire meeting. The act was immediately denounced by on-campus Jewish groups, and outside organizations. But the anti-Zionist student leadership of Ryerson University had successfully put a stop to an initiative to teach students about the Holocaust.
This incident is hardly without precedent. Similar motions put forth at Goldsmiths, University of London and the annual conference of the UK National Union of Students in 2015 and 2016 respectively, were derided as “exclusionary,” “Eurocentric” and espousing a “colonialist narrative.”
In the academic realm, the rise of incidents like these can be attributed to two main factors, both involving a bias against Jews. First, discussions about antisemitism as a form of oppression or even as a problem are all but absent from university courses that contend to be “anti-racist” or “anti-oppressive.”
Second, student unions, whose leadership is almost homogeneously “progressive” in their political orientation, also exclude programming or discussion of antisemitism from their anti-racist activism.
Ryerson’s annual Social Justice Week, although afforded a platform for in-depth discussion on Islamophobia, anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, was absolutely bereft of any mention of antisemitism. Keeping in mind that Jewish students are indeed visible at Ryerson, and have been vocal about the problem of antisemitism, it would seem strange for any programming on the historic and continued oppression of the Jewish people to be absent. The irony that a key member of SJP’s leadership, and a vocal opponent of the motion, Omar Falasteen, would deride the motion as “exclusive” because it only focused on Jewish oppression, is absolutely palpable.
However, these are the longstanding trends that precipitate incidents such as what occurred at the student union’s general meeting. Aside from some buttons saying “NO ISLAMOPHOBIA! NO ANTISEMITISM” distributed to campuses by the Canadian Federation of students, of which the student union is a member, the ‘student activist movement’ in Canada doesn’t touch the issue of anti-Jewish prejudice.
Along with the antisemitism inherent in the BDS movement and supported by the Canadian Federation of Students, any discourse or recognition of antisemitism is all but disallowed. This is how a large faction of student leadership, such as SJP, can get away with opposing and blocking an initiative for Holocaust education.
In the aftermath of the incident at the student union’s meeting, several comments were made that the ordeal was marked by Holocaust denial. While there is no doubt that Holocaust denial can be expressed jointly with other forms of antisemitism, it does not quite capture this phenomenon – rejecting the study and legitimacy of how the Holocaust is traditionally understood, and advocating for the application of a more “inclusive” neo-Marxist paradigm to study it.
I contend that this malformation of the memory of the Holocaust, one that takes Jewish memory of genocide and uses it for a political end rather than the preservation of Jewish voices and the eternal lessons carried in the phrase “never again,” is a new form of antisemitism.
Whereas ‘Holocaust denial’ assaults the memory of the Holocaust by questioning its historicity, ‘Holocaust disfigurement’ takes that memory and, while perhaps accepting its historicity, puts into question its historiology, of how we ought to study and interpret the events of the Holocaust. The memory of the Holocaust is disfigured by neo-Marxists and anti-Zionists to a narrative that doesn’t foster understanding of different and universal tolerance, but of exclusion and division.
While perhaps more obscure and less overtly hateful as Holocaust denial, Holocaust disfigurement not only calls into question how the Holocaust should be understood, but also who should be the one to make those interpretations. The real issue is that the “who” is not the Jewish people: it’s our opponents.
Jewish history and memory belongs in the domain of Jews. It is a basic tenant of social justice that historically oppressed minority groups are to tell their own collective history, define their own group hatred, and organize their own efforts to combat it, lest this constitute oppression. Yet what we see here is the Jewish people not only excluded from social justice politics, particularly on campus, but the victims of the very oppression it seeks to oppose.
I expect that Holocaust disfigurement will come to be a pernicious form of anti-Jewish prejudice in the future.
Unless we become pro-active and take back our own history, this particularly grotesque phenomena will continue to grow.
The author is a senior at York University in Toronto, studying social sciences and humanities.