We Will Be There Every Step Of The Way

by | Jun 3, 2021 | Advocacy, Hillel Ontario, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Below are perspectives from Hillel staff Ruth, Rob, Ariella and Yos on the current rise in antisemitism on campuses across Ontario. 

 

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Rob and I have worked at Hillel for the majority of my professional career. In fact, fall 2021 will mark  my 13th year on campus. 

That’s right, it’s my Hillel Bar Mitzvah! 

But rather than a year of celebration, this upcoming year will require more of me, our staff, and our students than any year that has come before. The campus climate and attitudes towards Israel have shifted and it has left many of our students feeling isolated and frightened. Unions, large and small, have  made bold, one-sided declarations that marginalize Jewish students and fuel a culture of antisemitism. Our students’ social media feeds have become peppered with anti-Israel rhetoric, posted by peers who they once considered friends. And, offering an alternative voice in student  forums has too often resulted in obsessive trolling and hateful personal messages. 

That said, not all hope is lost. Moments like these galvanize the community and I continue to be inspired on a daily basis by our amazing students who give their time, insight, and passion  to push back against hurtful vitriol. We have students sifting through vicious statement after vicious statement, trying to delineate which use classic antisemitic tropes and which fuel a culture of ignorance about Israel. We have students engaging in  difficult  one-on-one conversations with their friends and colleagues on campus about discrimination and hatred. And, there are students  reaching out to various members of their student government to ensure that Jewish students are being heard at this critical moment. We are writing articles, releasing statements, holding processing sessions, and lobbying administration to take proactive measures to ensure that Jewish students feel safe on campus. 

These are unprecedented times and it will take a broad communal effort to overcome these challenges. I am so grateful to be returning to Hillel for my 13th year so that together with my amazing colleagues, we can be there to support Jewish students and our university partners in making campus a safe place for all.

Rob Nagus
Senior Director, Hillel UofT

 

It’s a bewildering time to be a Jewish student on campus. In the long and (often) dangerous arch of Jewish history, Jewish diasporic communities have rarely been able to enjoy the safety and security felt in a contemporary Canadian landscape. At the same time, this is without question one of the more challenging and isolating times to be a Zionist. 

The recent escalation in Israel created  a larger global conversation about the conflict on social media and in the press. Public opinion shifted and the rhetoric leaned in favour of talking about Palestinian solidarity, with little to no mention of Israelis or antisemitism. I witnessed Jewish students being increasingly marginalized in online spaces, often scared to speak up about their relationship to Israel and its centrality in contemporary Jewish life. 

As a Hillel staff person engaged in social media, I was privy to a lot of these online conversations. I understood how Jewish students must have been feeling because, to be honest, I was feeling the same way. This is why our strategy was first and foremost to ensure students had safe spaces to discuss the recent escalation, and to develop tools for managing the challenges associated with anti-Israel rhetoric online. 

I am confident we will continue doing the important work of education, community organizing and coalition building that are vital to keeping Jewish students and supporters of Israel safe on campus and online. 

Ruth Chitiz
Assistant Director, Hillel York

 

We’ve navigated over a year of surreal experiences; a natural consequence of our vast world being shrunk into the size of a screen as we have (as much as possible) stayed home. Around us, the mundane cues of day-to-day life. On our laps or in our hands, a portal to some of the most important and biggest issues that we face. 

A couple of weeks ago, that contrast came into sharp relief for me, as, surrounded by the stuffed animals and kitten posters of my sister’s childhood bedroom (I was on a brief visit home to see family), I found myself staring into the faces of over a dozen students who were looking for help in processing one of the most challenging moments of their lives. 

We know that the recent tumultuous weeks of protest and horrific violence between Israelis and Palestinians has been painful to witness. It’s also apparent that antisemitic rhetoric and acts of hate have increased throughout the globe. Social media has been filled with incomplete talking points, sound bites, and memes that are unproductive at best and harmful at worst. And through it all, regardless of their personal politics, many Jewish students have felt alone: watching relationships fracture as friends ask them to choose sides, feeling forced to speak for a country simply because of their identity, and no matter what they choose to say, risking losing their ties to various communities of which they are a part. 

Students were in need of being together with others who understood how complicated this moment felt; how personal it was. So, along with fellow Hillel staff Ruth Chitiz, we invited students in just to be together, to share how they were feeling, and to make sure they knew they were not alone in this. While politics was not absent in the discussion, it also wasn’t the lead. 

And the students talked. About navigating social media, about friendships and academic relationships being strained, about feeling afraid to speak up and share their views. And they listened to each other, and responded with words of solidarity. Through it all, my heart felt like it was simultaneously breaking from the pain that I heard, and becoming more full from the loving support that I witnessed. 

For the first time in days, students got to know they were being heard and that their pain and fear were being validated. That despite the isolation of this moment, compounded by the isolation of living through a pandemic, they were not alone. In addition to Hillel staff, we helped these students see that they had each other.

This post, much like the conversations we have had and will continue to have with students, is not about what should happen in the Middle East, or about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about the loneliness that came from this latest conflict for so many of our students. It’s about how, while we may disagree about facts, feelings should never be up for debate. 

In a world that is increasingly polarized, our job at Hillel is to allow our students to express their emotions in a safe and non-judgemental space. They deserve (and need) a break from feeling forced to defend their positions, to be invited to process why they even care in the first place, and to know that Hillel is here to hold them through that.

I’m grateful to be in a position to help foster  this crucial space, whether on screen, or (hopefully soon) in person. Especially now, this is exactly where I want to be. 

Rabbi Ariella Rosen
Senior Jewish Educator

 


As tensions rose on the streets of Jerusalem and another outbreak of violence between the IDF and Hamas in Gaza began, half a world away we saw the same conflict play out in a very different way. 

In this bizarre proxy war, the battlefield is social media, and instead of rockets and missiles, it’s brightly coloured Instagram squares with catchy slogans featuring poorly researched statements that seem determined to position the conflict as a false binary. In the eyes of the activists pushing this online battle, one must choose between two mutually exclusive positions and once committed to a “side”, one must support it unequivocally.

At Queen’s university, where I am the director of our campus Hillel, we have seen several university groups and clubs release inflammatory, one-sided statements that both deny Jewish indigeneity (by describing Israel as a colonial project) and completely ignore the role of Hamas in the latest round of violence. We have also heard reports from many individual Jewish students that they have received messages from peers and even friends that range from demands to defend or explain Israeli government decisions/policies, to full-blown antisemitic slurs. 

So how are we responding to all of this? 

Many in the Jewish community will have heard about the inflammatory statement released by the Queen’s Journal on Erev Shavuot, and you may have seen Hillel’s response letter which we published on our social media channels. We followed up this action by coordinating students to email the Dean of Student Affairs to address the hostile atmosphere that is being created by the students pushing their anti-Israel agenda while employing numerous antisemitic tropes. Over the past several weeks, our Hillel leaders brought together more than 20 Queen’s students to lobby every faculty council on campus, and the leadership of the AMS (Queen’s student government) to remember their responsibilities to support all students at this incredibly difficult time.

I am pleased to report that we have received unanimous commitment from the student leaders that we met that they would refuse to align themselves with the divisive politics being pushed by the most radical activists on this campus. The essence of their argument is that the only party responsible for solving the inequities that exist in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, is Israel. They want to perpetuate the idea that this conflict isn’t a conflict at all, and that it’s all very simple. We know that’s not true and we are refusing to take part in the game that these students want us to play. Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in safety and security and we will not make students feel like they have to choose between one side or the other.

It may feel that the outlook right now is somewhat bleak. We have all been shocked by the avalanche of antisemitism that we have witnessed across our province and especially on our university campuses. But Hillel is here. And we always will be. We will always be the front line of defense against antisemitism on campus, and it is our student leaders who are on the ground doing the policy research, community organising, statement drafting and public diplomacy. My students know their campus better than anyone and so I have been more than glad to follow their lead in our advocacy.

Student leaders deserve far more credit than they often receive for the hours upon hours that they dedicate to protecting their fellow Jewish peers. They aren’t simply the next generation of Jewish leaders, they’re Jewish leaders right now! So if I leave you with one message, it’s this… the kids are alright…and we should trust them!

Yos Tarshish
Director, Queen’s Hillel

Stronger Together!

Stronger Together!

Over this past Family Day Weekend, I spent a lot of time reflecting both about the challenges we face, but also about the incredible strength and resiliency of this community. Jewish students are often at the forefront of hate and discrimination on campus and online, but we are at our most powerful – and most effective – when we work together as one.

With that in mind, I want to provide several important advocacy updates.

First, I am excited to share that Hillel Ontario has begun convening meetings to coordinate advocacy initiatives amongst Jewish campus organizations across the country. The time has come for Hillel Ontario to lead the way in encouraging cooperation to accomplish the goals we collectively share. Joining us in these monthly discussions are Hillel Montreal, Hillel BC, Hillel Ottawa, CJPAC, Hasbara Fellowships and StandWithUs. We appreciate their willingness to engage with us in these important conversations.

Second, I want to update you on the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) matter that galvanized much community discussion last week. In addition to endorsing a motion to divest from companies doing business in Israel, the union misrepresented the recently released report of the Antisemitism Working Group and its approach to what does or does not constitute antisemitism. Hillel views these type of divestment motions as part of a wider issue of antisemitism on campus, and we have made that point clearly and consistently to university leadership and members of the Working Group for the better part of the past year.

Late Friday, Working Group members released an important statement, which both criticized the rhetoric of union leaders, and vindicated our belief that hate speech directed at Israel, Israelis or Jews based on actions (real or imagined) of the Israeli government is antisemitism. This is an important moment; one that underscores why our approach to these issues, and the allies we foster across campus are so critical. While we may not be able to stop every divestment motion from passing, we can – and we will continue to – have our voices heard by university leadership to ensure antisemitism remains on the margins. This is precisely what happened last week at the UofT.

Jewish students deserve to study, live and socialize in an environment free from harassment and discrimination. Hillel will continue to condemn antisemitism, defend Israel and our right to self-determination, and build essential relationships on campus to secure the well-being of the students we so proudly serve.

And, we will do so in concert with our allies; because we believe we are stronger together.

Sincerely,

Jay Solomon
Chief Communications & Public Affairs Officer

Nature vs. Nurture, and Nate Deserves Our Anger

Nature vs. Nurture, and Nate Deserves Our Anger

Weekly D’var: Toldot 5782 by Scott Goldstein

[Warning: Ted Lasso show spoiler] I just finished watching the second season of Ted Lasso, and I cannot get the image of the finale out of my head. Haven’t seen it yet? That’s ok, I’ll recap part of this week’s Torah portion as you go catch up and then tie it in at the end for when you get back.

When not detailing the intricate politics of well-digging and water rights, this week’s Torah portion takes some time to highlight our favourite biblical twins – Jacob and Esav (a.k.a. Esau). Some may even refer to this as the first twin study on “Nature vs. Nurture” (shoutout to my psychology peeps) ever recorded. We are presented with brothers that were raised in the same environment but turned out to be polar opposites. I’ll let you read the riveting stories of birthright transactions and elaborate deceptions on your own, but the narrative we are presented with is clear: Jacob is good, and Esav is bad. Here’s the problem I had with this narrative: If Esav was raised in a good environment, but still did bad things, then is the Torah telling us that our destiny is sealed by nature?

I just finished watching Ted Lasso, and I cannot help but think about how loveable Nate (played by Nick Mohammed) is a perfect example of what I think our Torah portion is trying to tell us. Ted Lasso (played masterfully by Jason Sudeikis) created a nurturing environment where Nate could grow from invisible kit manager to assistant coach that everyone loves. Despite all that, it comes down to the decisions Nate made to allow jealousy to influence his actions, leading him to leave Richmond FC and betray his teammates by joining West Ham United.

I think the story we read in the Torah is reminding us that both nature and nurture are really important (just as science does), but our decisions, ultimately, are our own. Whether it’s Esav going down in history as the ultimate example of bad decision-making or Nate likely being the reason we see Ted cry next season, the lesson is clear… be like Jacob because we can make good decisions no matter the circumstances.

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