McGill University attempts peaceful dialogue hindered by protest

Over the past year and a half, I found myself disappointed by the relentless hatred that has brought three anti-Israel divestment resolutions to our campus over a two-year period.

MCGILL UNIVERSITY campus in Montreal (photo credit: REUTERS)
MCGILL UNIVERSITY campus in Montreal
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The reason McGill University spoke to me so much was because of its emphasis on the importance of free speech and self-expression. Coming from France, I often found I was not given a platform to express my support of Israel and was silenced by the necessity to prioritize my safety. Here, I was in a safe space, where my differences were not only embraced, but appreciated... or so I thought.
Over the past year and a half, I found myself disappointed by the relentless hatred that has brought three anti-Israel divestment resolutions to our campus over a two-year period. After all the ignorance and blind accusations I encountered, I decided that I wanted to learn more, and participate in fruitful conversations rather than passively witnessing a lot of hateful slogans thrown around. Therefore, I became a StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellow, and have been given the tools and the facts to initiate those dialogues. The question remains, when will they happen at McGill? On November 8, I brought a program to McGill that I thought best represented the vibrant, spontaneous and optimistic nature that I experienced upon visiting Israel. I wanted to expose Israel – creative, multi-ethnic, inclusive and sometimes messy – to my friends and peers. Artists 4 Israel was the perfect vehicle. I wanted to use art as a platform to engage in meaningful and constructive conversations, that would help others develop a better understanding about a country that is too often wrongly criticized and misrepresented.
I wanted students to learn about Israeli culture and that it is a democracy with respect for all minorities – especially its 20 percent Arab population – who have full rights (including serving as the presidents of academic institutions, members of the Supreme Court and the Knesset).
Soon enough, this event – one that so desperately tried to set aside political differences to share our common desire for peace – attracted negative attention from angry anti-Israel students on campus. They unfurled banners, elicited hateful slogans, and physically trapped us behind their sheets. Some of these individuals even interviewed us, before putting away their note pads and joining the crowd.
These same students reported about the event in the school newspaper, The McGill Daily. The biased article distorts our goals and further misrepresents Israel.
As pro-Israel students on campus, we never imagined that an art exhibit intended to convey coexistence, diversity, culture and peace would become a flashpoint for an anti-Israel demonstration. Given the open-minded and safe-space approach taken, maybe now it’s time to question the real motives.
We can’t deny the facts: if the mural had been brought by any other culture club on campus, it would have never seen the opposition that it was subjected to. Various organizations present events to share their cultures, and introduce the community to some of the wonderful differences that make McGill so unique. In early November, the McGill Mexican Student Association (MMSA) brought an event to celebrate El Dia De Los Muertos, which had a great turnout and highly positive response.
So how did we get to a point that when pro-Israel students bring an event to campus – even in the most peaceful of scenarios – they can’t display a flag that brings us so much pride in representing our democratic values, without experiencing such strong opposition and backlash? The facts are that in the McGill Daily article (which touts itself as representing the voices of students), the art installation about Tel Aviv graffiti was labeled as an “insensitive concept and erasure of Palestinian voices.” To me, this is beyond belief.
The fact is that the violent silencing and blocking of this event is what should be considered insensitive, and an erasure of Jewish and Israeli voices.
The protesters were unhappy about the fact that “ Palestinian people, along with any Palestinian flags or symbols, were entirely absent from the event.” Yes, that is absolutely correct. This was a display about Israel. It was not designed to be a political statement. It was a display of the art of Israel’s streets.
Seriously? Comparing an art exhibit to what they call “an apartheid wall” is ridiculous.
Once again, it distorts and misrepresents, and in the end was simply their effort to deny Jewish and Israeli students the right to free speech in sharing their perception of Israel with their fellow students.
This experience shed light on a very upsetting reality – their problem is with the sheer presence of Israel, and not the dialogue or message it tries to promote. The fact that they protested a display calling for peace just because it had something to do with Israel is precisely this type of intolerance that hinders efforts to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground.
We are no longer talking about political disagreements, given that this installation negated this. The issue is much more worrying.
Now, we are talking about a fundamental disrespect for a difference of opinion.
It is precisely this type of intolerance that results in these ugly attempts to silence any voices except those of McGill Students in Solidarity with Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR). We object strongly to the kind of partisanship that would result in the views of only one group being heard – and we object strongly to the characterization of this article, which seems to condone this kind of intolerant, and borderline racist behavior.
The author is a sophomore at McGill University in Montreal, Canada majoring in biochemistry.
She is the 2016-17 StandWithUs Emerson Fellow.