Aug. 4, 2020 – By REBECCA KATZMAN
Anti-Israel groups have hijacked student governments on many campuses. Their aggressive, often malicious rhetoric and programs are bigoted and hateful, causing Jewish and pro-Israel students to feel marginalized. Although bigotry against Israel is often considered free speech, it is actually hate speech and antisemitic, at least according to the IHRA definition. It should be socially unacceptable on every university campus in Canada. It is not civil discourse, and far too often, it shuts down any kind of dialogue about the complexities of the Middle East conflict.
These groups are loud, angry, and their demonization of all things Israel contributes to making campus a hostile environment for Jewish and pro-Israel students. The relentless propaganda of the global BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement to delegitimize Israel has led to overt acts of antisemitism. Although BDS motions are generally toothless and university administrations may disavow them, the damage to student life is real.
From 2012 to 2014, the BDS movement passed 11 anti-Israel resolutions on campuses across the country. Since then, Jewish campus organizations have worked together to defeat such campaigns at 11 universities. Even as we continue addressing challenges on campus, we must become more proactive. We must empower students to educate new audiences, make friends, and create alliances.
We have to bring student leaders to Israel and Israel to students! Working for StandWithUs Canada, the game-changing Israel education organization, I recognized that our community can do more to overcome antisemitism and ignorance on campus.
That is why earlier this year, I asked students who went through StandWithUs Canada’s Emerson Fellowship, which equips student leaders to proudly bring Israel to their campuses while challenging misinformation about the Jewish state, to reach out to student government presidents, executive members, journalists, and influencers on their campuses across the country to offer them an in-depth tour of Israel and the Palestinian Authority – from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to Ramallah.
The trip was funded by two wonderful community philanthropists, Tammy Brown and Tamara Fine, their friends, and other members of the community who shared our vision.
StandWithUs Canada led its first campus mission to Israel, called InSight, this past February. I felt so privileged to lead the delegation of 14 prominent student leaders from Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, St. John’s, and Winnipeg on a life-changing and educational 10-day adventure.
We started in Jerusalem, where we arrived in time to see the beautiful celebrations at the Western Wall on Shabbat. We toured Yad Vashem, where we learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Student leaders mentioned that they had never learned anything about the Holocaust during any of their school years. I watched the students learn, become emotional, and even shed tears.
We went to Ramallah and Ariel to hear from Israelis and Palestinians, the people on both sides of the conflict. Participants met with students from Ariel University in the West Bank, and asked them what life is like in their community. Later in the day, the students went on a tour at the Achva factory, where they sampled warm halva straight from the mixer.
The group visited Save a Child’s Heart to learn about the humanitarian organization that offers life-saving heart surgeries for babies from the Middle East and North Africa. One day ended with dinner in Usafiya, a Druze village in the north of Israel, at the family home of a student ambassador for peace.
We visited the SodaStream factory in the Negev, where participants saw Palestinians and Israelis working side by side in peaceful coexistence. SodaStream’s facility in the West Bank had been a major target of BDS, and we heard from Palestinian workers about how this anti-Israel campaign endangers their livelihoods.
We visited the Gaza “envelope” – communities and towns that border or are very close to the Gaza Strip, including Sderot so the students could understand the real threat of Hamas terror, with missiles often raining on these places and families driven to bomb shelters with just 15 seconds to find safety.
We heard from Danny Tirza, the architect of the security barrier that was built to stop terrorism from the Palestinian territories during the second intifada. We learned about other security threats Israel faces as well, along with the difficult choices the Israel Defense Forces must often make during emergencies. Participants gained a deeper understanding of how complicated the situation is, and our conversations became more nuanced.
A highlight of the trip was the Ethiopian cultural centre, Beteh, in Tel Aviv. Bettae was created by former StandWithUs employee Ashager Araro. It showcases Ethiopian food and culture. The students learned the story of Ethiopian Jewry and gained a deeper understanding of Israeli society.
Towards the end, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, considered by Christians to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. To cap off this amazing trip, we toured Jaffa and the Peres Centre for Peace, went to the beach, and enjoyed the vibrant nightlife of Tel Aviv. The students got to see Israel as a complex and vibrant country, a place with a rich and diverse culture, and a home to people who found countless unique ways to make the world a better place.
In the end, this trip resulted in a whirlwind of emotions for everyone. On departing Israel, hearts and minds were more open, more reflective, and more connected. “Though each participant was different, as a group we shared one important trait: Curiosity,” one student wrote. “I was absolutely inspired by the open-mindedness of my peers, their desire to learn, and ask uncomfortable questions.”
I’m very excited about the relationships and partnerships we are building with many diverse campus groups and student leaders from many backgrounds. The more we can build understanding about Jews and Israel, the more allies we will have in the fight against hatred and antisemitism.
Rebecca Katzman is the Campus Director for StandWithUs Canada. She is also an alumna of the 2015-2016 StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellowship. For more about the fellowships and help fighting antisemitism on campus, contact Rebecca at: firstname.lastname@example.org