Spring 2010 Camera on Campus Volume 20 Number 1
Question: How is Israeli Apartheid Week Different From All Other Weeks?
Answer: At York University, where anti-Israel hostility is year-round, it isn’t
For Jewish students around the globe, no event is more dreaded on campus than Israeli Apartheid Week, when anti-Israel student groups seize control of university quads, classrooms and student centres to propagate destruction of the Middle East’s only democracy. They masquerade in kaffiyehs, chanting “Viva Intifada!,” a term which brings to mind the devastating suicide bombing campaigns that plagued bus stops and pizzerias in the 90s. While their tactics are less extreme than the bombers’, the mission of these student groups, which sympathize with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Iranian regime, is the same: eliminate Jewish self-determination in Israel. In pursuit of a racist, fanatical ambition, these groups have plagued their respective campuses with slander, hate speech, even outright violence.
At most universities, the vitriol is compacted into one or two weeks, but the Jewish students at York University endure aggressive affronts throughout the entire school year, on a campus where for many students, anti-Semitism has become par for the course.
Located just north of Toronto, the world’s most multicultural city, York appears at first glance to resemble a Utopian kind of place: ultra-modern, cool glass buildings jammed with every type of race, religion and culture learning together; an enviable variety of ethnic restaurants for a university campus; ultimately, a projection of what other schools and cities could be, if they would only overcome their differences. That is what I thought when I first arrived at York in September 2007, optimistic, naïve and excited to tackle the mini world. And, like many students who would eventually become Israel activists on campus, I was completely unaware of the hatred I would find towards Israel, Zionists and Jews.
One year later, I had transformed into a jaded, cynical person, continually shocked or appalled or both by my fellow classmates, and what seemed to be a largely unconcerned administration. In the time I was a student at York, swastika graffiti appeared everywhere from library desks to bathroom walls; several friends and peers had been personally harassed or threatened for wearing a kippah, Star of David or anything identifiably Jewish or Israeli (one of my non-Jewish friends was followed to her car by a group of anti-Israel activists when she was spotted with an Israeli flag); a student-run security escort service was initiated to walk Jewish students to class; the massacre at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva was praised in the student newspaper; one of my former teaching assistants launched an aggressive school-wide hate campaign to boycott Israeli academics on our campus and the York Federation of Students (YFS, York’s student government, to which all undergraduates pay fees) unanimously voted to unequivocally condemn Israel for “atrocities in Gaza.”
None of these incidents occurred during IAW, the trendy global slander campaign which was founded an hour’s drive south of York at the University of Toronto. In fact, the most significant event to occur while I was a York student took place in February 2009, weeks before IAW, when the Hillel Lounge was swarmed by a hostile mob estimated to number over 100 anti-Israel activists (including current president of YFS, Krisna Saravanamuttu). The York administration’s lack of response triggered a joint statement from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Hillel at York and Hasbara Fellowships expressed deep concern on behalf of the Toronto Jewish community, York alum and visiting professor Shalom Lappin from the University of London cancelled his lecture series, and Jewish students felt unquestionably shaken. As a friend put it, “York is like Anatevka, they’re trying to drive us out.”
A year after the attack on York’s Hillel, things are still shaky. In the fall, Bnai Brith Canada published a check list in the National Post, warning Jewish students they could expect “harassment ... intimidation by your professor or teaching assistant... Swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti all over campus.” Federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney compared anti-Semitic activity at York to pogroms. Hasbara Fellowships initiated a Task Force on Campus Anti-Semitism at York, where students were encouraged to share their experiences either in person or online for those who were uncomfortable doing so in a public setting.
Some observers do, however, see hope. Two days after two pro-Israel students alleged that they had been harassed and physically assaulted, Hasbara Fellowships commended the university for its “swift investigation,” a welcome change from slow and ineffective responses to past episodes of anti-Semitism. Naomi Samuel, Hasbara Fellowships vice president of public relations, credited the Canadian Jewish community, national press, and public officials for hastening York’s reaction. (After viewing footage of the incident, campus security found no reason to involve the Toronto Police Service.)
Hasbara has also praised the university for its 2009 Task Force on Student Life, which has sought to expand the Student Code of Conduct, to strengthen communication between the administration and students, and to more aggressively enforce the Student Code of Rights and Responsibilities.
Matan Hazanov, president of Hillel at York, said the university is making “a strong effort” to ensure all students are safe on campus. “Hillel is working closely with the university admin” he said, adding that Hillel has “good relations” with security, and have specific procedures to respond to anti-Semitism. Hazanov also insisted that in spite of what has happened, York University, with 5,000 Jewish students, has plenty to offer. “York has an incredibly strong Jewish community... [it] is thriving,” he said.
Nevertheless, with the sixth annual Israeli Apartheid Week in the spring semester, Jewish students at York continue to face more of the same hostilities they encounter year round. While the administration has taken strides to improve the lives of Jewish students on campus, the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic movement is entrenched at York University. Like the looming concrete buildings, it’s there no matter what week it is.
Guest columnist Rachel Cravit is completing a two-year diploma in digital media arts at Seneca College, which shares a campus with York University. A CAMERA Campus Fellow, she previously attended York, where she witnessed virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.