Campus crashes

Are 20,000 Jewish students taking their lives in their hands by making a pro-Israel statement on campus? The reality is considerably more docile.

June 18, 2010 19:44
PREPARING FOR a counter-demonstration at York Univ

york uni pro israel 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

If Toronto is generally a bastion of goodwill for all – including Israel – the one crack in the surface where anti-Israel sentiments regularly seep through is on college campuses.

Events like the annual Israel Apartheid Week on the campuses of the University of Toronto, York University and Ryerson University, and a widely covered riot last year at York in which 100 anti-Israel activists surrounded a campus building belonging to the university’s Hillel chapter, forcing students to barricade themselves inside, are the manifestations of an organized campaign on the campuses targeting Israel.

While they may lead one to believe that the 20,000 Jewish students at the three universities are taking their lives in their hands by making a pro-Israel statement on campus, the reality is considerably more docile, and according to campus representatives and community professionals who gathered at a roundtable discussion at the Hillel of Greater Toronto headquarters at Wolfond Center for Jewish Campus Life, the changing attitudes on Toronto campuses is due in part to the outrage caused by the York incident.

For Ryan Luckner, who was the vice president of York’s Hillel and one of the students who had run into the Hillel building to avoid the mob, the incident was the culmination of a growing anti-Israel sentiment he’s felt during his three years at the school.

“At York, there’s a strong anti-Israel overtone and ideal. The York Federation of Students put a motion forward saying it supports the people of Gaza and the people of Palestine and condemns the idea of Israeli apartheid as part of its mandate. That’s something we have to challenge every day,” he said.

According to Hillel of Greater Toronto director Zac Kaye, the York incident has forced administration officials at all three universities to reassess their roles in curbing the anti-Israel vitriol on campus.

“What happened at York sent shock waves. It caused everybody in the Jewish community, and more importantly at the university, to say ‘no more.’ It crossed a red line; it has caused the universities to respond in extremely positive ways. Jewish students, just like all students, have a right to feel safe when they enter the campus,” said Kaye, adding that a fairer environment on campus has ensued.

All the universities have resisted banning anti-Israel events over the issue of free discourse, but they now certainly try to marginalize the impact of those events. They send out very strong messages, meet with the groups in question, saying we respect the freedom of speech but we expect civil discourse, and this should be the context.
“The administration now has no problem saying, ‘You’re making Jewish students feel very uncomfortable on campus and that shouldn’t be where it’s at.’ There are red lines, and what the universities didn’t do in the early years the anti-Israel campus movement was emerging was to enforce those red lines,” Kaye said.

Jordan Kerbel, the national director of public affairs of the Canadian Jewish Congress, stressed that the troublemakers on campus were “small, fringe groups.” “It’s important to remember that the vast majority of students could care less. We’re talking about maybe 200, 300 students out of the 50,000 who attend York,” he said.

WITH PRO-ISRAEL students often grasping for direction in ways to defend Israel, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto-funded organizations like Hillel, the CJC and the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) abet the students in finding ways to go on the offensive – like this year’s “Size Doesn’t Matter” campaign, timed to coincide with Israel Apartheid Week.

Students from 23 universities across Canada participated in promoting a multimedia campaign that received tons of coverage due to a viral video which touted Israel’s achievements in a PG-13 way that some people criticized as lewd, but many saw as innovative.

“We’re investing huge amounts of money on student activism on Israel’s behalf,” said Howard English, the federation’s director of strategic communications. “The Size Doesn’t Matter campaign, despite the controversy, certainly struck a chord with students who would otherwise not show any interest in Israel. It showed them aspects of Israel they had never thought of before.”

The students, too, were overjoyed at the success of the campaign, especially the YouTube video featuring a strategically placed map of Israel and a young, attractive couple.

“We weren’t promoting a negative message. It wasn’t, ‘We’re right and they’re wrong.’ It was a ‘this is what Israel has to offer,’” said York’s Luckner.

“It got the message out to people, and everyone was talking about it. They saw the positive messaging from it,” added Beca Bookman, a first-year University of Toronto student.

“The video that circulated has something like a million hits worldwide,” said Jay Solomon, the advocacy manager of CIJA. “And the Web site during Apartheid Week had 75,000 hits, many of them going to information about Israel pages or to our events page. So it was a positive engagement tool that not only brought people to the site but brought them to see Israel in a positive light because of the information and events that were contained there.”

According to Hillel director Kaye, the scope and flavor of the campaign proved that the pro-Israel students can take back the agenda.

“We’ve always taken the position of being proactive. The problem was that the Israel Apartheid Week was strong and created such a roar it placed us in a reactive mode rather than a proactive one,” he said. “So, for a few years, yes, we were on the defensive, but when we pushed back, as we did this year, it showed the strength of Toronto’s Jewish students.”

“One-hundred percent of the credit has to go to the students,” added the CJC’s Kerbel. “They’re incredibly committed. We’ve recognized that the anti-Israel environment is doing nothing but creating an extreme way of thinking – there is not intellectual discourse involved – there’s just tit for tat going back and forth, and there is no appetite on campus for this anymore. I think they present a shining example of what other pro-Israel students on campuses across North America and the world can do.”

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