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Canadian Jewish Students Scared? Ad in Newspaper Fuels a New Debate

December 24, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Canadian Jewish students are so traumatized by campus anti-Semitism that they are frightened to speak out on behalf of Israel or even Judaism, according to a newspaper advertisement appearing in Canada’s most prominent newspaper.

The ad, written as a letter by journalist Anna Morgan, author Geraldine Sherman and York University professor Rachael Turkienicz for a group called Solidarity With Jews at Risk, expresses support for Jewish students across Canada and condemns anti-Semitism on the country’s campuses.

More than 100 people signed the ad, which appeared in the Dec. 17 edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The most publicized case of anti-Semitic ferment occurred at Montreal’s Concordia University. Anti-Israel protesters rioted there in the fall to prevent a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s foreign minister.

More recently, Concordia’s student union voted to ban the campus Hillel after fliers promoting a program that allows young Jews to volunteer in the Israeli army were distributed from Hillel’s table on campus.

But most of the activities on campus aren’t so blatant, Turkienicz says.

“It’s all subtle, it’s all done by innuendo,” said Turkienicz, a professor of the Faculty of Education and Center for Jewish Studies at Toronto’s York College. “That’s how you intimidate.”

The extent of intimidation on Canadian campuses is a matter of debate.

While agreeing that anti-Israel activity generally has risen since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, a recent report from UIA Federations Canada says the picture is more complex and nuanced.

“On almost every campus other than Concordia University, students and Jewish professionals rejected the idea that their campuses are on fire, as some in the Jewish world have claimed,” the report says. “Some even report a decline in anti-Israel expression over the past few years.”

Jeffrey Ross, the director of campus and higher education affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, agreed.

“My sense is that it’s much like the United States in that you have a number of places where the battle over the Middle East is very intense. But there are many other campuses where” it has not been a major issue, he said.

While there may be similarities between the campus experience in the United States and Canada, there are differences as well.

In the United States, residential schools such as the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard have witnessed the most heated ferment over the Middle East, while Canadian commuter schools that are home to large number of first-generation immigrant students are more likely to be hotbeds of protest, according to the UIA report,

In addition, the report says, anti-Israel activity — often coordinated over the Internet — comes more from extreme-left groups that oppose a possible war on Iraq, rather than from Arab or Muslim groups.

The authors of the newspaper ad say they got their information from students at universities across Canada — ranging from Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie in the East to the University of British Columbia in the West.

“Our findings were not hearsay and not third hand. We spoke to students and faculty directly and found they are not reporting incidents — like shouting matches, shoving and actual physical violence — because they are totally intimidated,” Turkienicz said. “Getting people to go on the record was a problem. On university campuses, Jewish students don’t feel they can voice an opinion, so they revert to silence.”

Ruth Klein, national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, calls the ad “a wake-up call” to university administrators.

“I think the letter was important because it opens peoples’ eyes to the fact something is happening, bubbling below the surface,” Klein said. “The ad refers to a certain atmosphere that exists, and what is missing from these administrations is a process which will enable students to feel comfortable enough to come forward.”

A student at York, Miriam Levin, recently wrote a story for the Canadian Jewish News that documented a litany of anti-Israel incidents on campus.

She is one of just a few Jewish students willing to speak up publicly about the anti-Israel atmosphere at York — cultivated by the school’s administration, she said.

At one point, Levin told JTA, an Arab student walked up to her and announced that he was prepared to be the next suicide bomber for the Palestinians. When she called security, they promised to do something about the incident, but did nothing, Levin said.

Another time, Levin said, York itself organized a conflict resolution seminar, but invited only a former head of the Arab Students’ Association and a neutral woman, ignoring the Jewish side.

“York hosts a lot of pro-Arab speakers,” Levin said, and has many professors who support the Palestinian side by signing petitions condemning Israel.

“It makes the Jewish students uncomfortable seeing their professors acting this way,” she said.

Her conclusion?

“The administration at York is openly one-sided in favor of the Palestinians. Without a doubt,” Levin told JTA. “Any pro-Israel views shared by Jewish students are dismissed out of hand and not even allowed to be heard.”

York’s director of media relations, Kim Nunn, was troubled by the characterization.

“I am concerned about the perception this student leaves, and this certainly wouldn’t be the way I would characterize this administration’s approach,” he told JTA.

York tries to ensure that the campus environment is conducive to a good educational experience, Nunn said.

“We would not countenance expressions of hatred. And I would be surprised if someone filed a complaint and that these concerns were not thoroughly explored,” he said.

Turkienicz says administrators’ response to anti-Semitic allegations has been inadeqaute.

“Part of our reason for doing this was to say” to administrators “we know you have these regulations against racism, you just don’t enforce them evenly,” she said.

Susan Bloch-Nevitte, communications director at the University of Toronto, said faculty and students at her school have held lectures and other forums on tolerance. In February, the school will host an international academic symposium on anti-Semitism past and present, she added.

Bloch-Nevitte admitted, however, that there have been incidents at the University of Toronto that could be viewed as anti-Semitic.

In one incident, a student publication referred to “the memory of innocents, Afghanistan and Palestine murdered.”

While the material was cited as being anti-Semitic, “this is a community of 70,000, so we have to keep perspective on this,” Bloch-Nevitte said. “The leader of our Jewish Student Services is unequivocal that there is no sense of fear among Jewish students here.”

The UIA Federations report agreed.

Referring to the University of Toronto and York University, the report said, “the level of political activity of any sort on both of Toronto’s large campuses is extremely low relative to other urban campuses.”

After the ad was published in the Globe and Mail, the National Post newspaper wrote about an unscientific poll the paper had taken at universities across the country. In the poll, only three students said they had experienced overt anti-Semitism.

Even where there is anti-Semitism, some say, the effect can be unifying.

“Even at Concordia, which has been the most difficult campus, the Jewish campus community has come together and stood up,” the ADL’s Ross said.

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