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.
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.
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!
Director, Queen’s Hillel