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.

york uni pro israel 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 oneof the students who had run into the Hillel building to avoid the mob,the incident was the culmination of a growing anti-Israel sentimenthe’s felt during his three years at the school.
“At York, there’s a strong anti-Israel overtone and ideal. The YorkFederation of Students put a motion forward saying it supports thepeople of Gaza and the people of Palestine and condemns the idea ofIsraeli apartheid as part of its mandate. That’s something we have tochallenge every day,” he said.
According to Hillel of Greater Toronto director Zac Kaye, the Yorkincident has forced administration officials at all three universitiesto reassess their roles in curbing the anti-Israel vitriol on campus.
“What happened at York sent shock waves. It caused everybody in theJewish community, and more importantly at the university, to say ‘nomore.’ It crossed a red line; it has caused the universities to respondin 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 theissue of free discourse, but they now certainly try to marginalize theimpact of those events. They send out very strong messages, meet withthe groups in question, saying we respect the freedom of speech but weexpect civil discourse, and this should be the context.
“The administration now has no problem saying, ‘You’re making Jewishstudents feel very uncomfortable on campus and that shouldn’t be whereit’s at.’ There are red lines, and what the universities didn’t do inthe early years the anti-Israel campus movement was emerging was toenforce those red lines,” Kaye said.
Jordan Kerbel, the national director of public affairs of the CanadianJewish Congress, stressed that the troublemakers on campus were “small,fringe groups.” “It’s important to remember that the vast majority ofstudents could care less. We’re talking about maybe 200, 300 studentsout of the 50,000 who attend York,” he said.
WITH PRO-ISRAEL students often grasping for direction in ways to defendIsrael, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto-funded organizations likeHillel, the CJC and the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy(CIJA) abet the students in finding ways to go on the offensive – likethis year’s “Size Doesn’t Matter” campaign, timed to coincide withIsrael Apartheid Week.
Students from 23 universities across Canada participated in promoting amultimedia campaign that received tons of coverage due to a viral videowhich touted Israel’s achievements in a PG-13 way that some peoplecriticized as lewd, but many saw as innovative.
“We’re investing huge amounts of money on student activism on Israel’sbehalf,” said Howard English, the federation’s director of strategiccommunications. “The Size Doesn’t Matter campaign, despite thecontroversy, certainly struck a chord with students who would otherwisenot show any interest in Israel. It showed them aspects of Israel theyhad never thought of before.”
The students, too, were overjoyed at the success of the campaign,especially the YouTube video featuring a strategically placed map ofIsrael and a young, attractive couple.
“We weren’t promoting a negative message. It wasn’t, ‘We’re right andthey’re wrong.’ It was a ‘this is what Israel has to offer,’” saidYork’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, afirst-year University of Toronto student.
“The video that circulated has something like a million hitsworldwide,” said Jay Solomon, the advocacy manager of CIJA. “And theWeb site during Apartheid Week had 75,000 hits, many of them going toinformation about Israel pages or to our events page. So it was apositive engagement tool that not only brought people to the site butbrought them to see Israel in a positive light because of theinformation and events that were contained there.”
According to Hillel director Kaye, the scope and flavor of the campaignproved that the pro-Israel students can take back the agenda.
“We’ve always taken the position of being proactive. The problem wasthat the Israel Apartheid Week was strong and created such a roar itplaced 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 pushedback, as we did this year, it showed the strength of Toronto’s Jewishstudents.”
“One-hundred percent of the credit has to go to the students,” addedthe CJC’s Kerbel. “They’re incredibly committed. We’ve recognized thatthe anti-Israel environment is doing nothing but creating an extremeway of thinking – there is not intellectual discourse involved –there’s just tit for tat going back and forth, and there is no appetiteon campus for this anymore. I think they present a shining example ofwhat other pro-Israel students on campuses across North America and theworld can do.”