How to fight campus Antisemitism
by Doris Strub Epstein
“Fight back. If someone spits on you don’t call it rain”
In the wake of the latest assault on Jews and non Jews that support Israel, the “punch a Zionist” tweet from McGill student council representative Igor Sadikov, who remains rebuked but unpunished, the CIJR (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research) conference on fighting anti Semitism on university campuses, held at Beth Radom last week, was well timed.
The featured speaker, Professor Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, in 2016, led a coalition of 60 Jewish and education advocacy groups that successfully lobbied the University of California system to adopt a landmark policy condemning “anti Semitism and anti Semitic forms of anti Zionism”. She was nominated for Jewish hero of the year by the Jewish Federation of North America.
She told the audience how Amcha, the organization she co founded to investigate and combat anti Semitism at institutions of higher education in America, went about getting the UC Regents to publicly state that anti Semitism is a serious problem on UC campuses and have established a working group to address the problem.
“We do not focus on BDS or anti Zionist activity per se,” she said, “but rather on its anti Semitic nature, its harmful impact on Jewish students and the university’s unwillingness to acknowledge BDS incited anti Jewish bigotry and treat it as all other racial , ethnic , gender bigotries.”
She listed some of the perpetrators of the problem who can be found on campuses across Canada – anti Israel student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine whose agenda includes the promotion of BDS, Students Against Israeli Apartheid. Often they make alliances with many other minority groups on campus. For example at McGill U, the anti Israel Divestment Resolution brought forward by Students in Solidarity for Human Rights was co sponsored or endorsed by 20 other student groups, including feminist, queer and black student organizations.
In addition to student groups, she told the audience, thousands of faculty have also publicly endorsed BDS especially the boycott of Israeli universities and scholars. They often use their classrooms as platforms for anti Israel remarks, sponsor “virulently” anti Israel talks and symposia. She gave the example of Professor of English, Steven Salaita, a founder of the US campaign for the academic boycott of Israel who “tweeted hundreds of viciously anti Zionist and anti Semitic messages. He gave a talk at the University of Alberta sponsored by eight departments, in which he demonized and delegitimized Israel and promoted BDS.”
Professor Aurel Braun who chaired the conference, stated, “We professors have failed our students. Israel Apartheid Week (which began at the University of Toronto) is now in 50 countries and hundreds of campuses. It’s not just one week, it goes on all year and has permeated every faculty. Free speech is suppressed: there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation…”
Aedan O’Connor, student activist at Ryerson U, told the audience she is often under attack for being an “unapologetic Zionist.” She claims, “we are in an intellectual battleground where our ideas are being stifled by the regressive left, masquerading as liberalism and free speech.”
“Adding insult to injury,” Tammi said, ” are university administrators, who are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone address, acts of anti Semitism, and even engage in a clear discriminatory double standard: language and behaviour that would never be tolerated from either students or faculty when directed against other campus minorities go unchallenged by administrators when they are directed against Jewish students.”
Tammi credits Amcha’s successes to the coalition of sixty organizations, they created – Jewish and non Jewish. They also reached out to thousands of University of California stakeholders – donors, UC Alumni, parents, students. “I am certain,” she said, “that it was this show of communal unity that convinced the Regents to unanimously approve such a statement and to stand firm in the face of tremendous backlash from anti-Zionist groups.”
This “unprecedented show of unity” she believes, can be a model for how other communities can come together to fight campus anti Semitism. “If the Jewish community can’t stand united on behalf of Jewish students in the face of growing threats to their safety and well being, then why should university leaders do anything to stem the tide?”
“Fight back,” Prof. Braun exhorts. “We have to speak out. We cannot be silent. if someone spits in our face don’t call it rain.”