Oct. 13, 2020
By STEVEN GREENWOOD
It’s been no secret that antisemitism is an old problem at Toronto’s York University, and a serious security issue for Jewish students. In recent years, the changing geopolitical climate on campus has led to a situation where open antisemitism is no longer confined to extremist circles. It has become mainstream.
With the notion of academic freedom often twisted out of context, hatred towards Jewish students on York’s campus continues to be accepted. Jewish students feel they cannot express their beliefs and values without fear of harassment, intimidation, and even violence.
Adding to the discrimination they face on campus is a kind of masked antisemitism. For example, the student performing the opening ceremony at York’s Multicultural Week Parade wore a T-shirt stating, “Anti-Zionist vibes only.”
For many Jewish students, Zionism is essential for the safety of the Jewish people. But the increasing normalization of anti-Zionism makes them fear expressing this integral part of their Jewish identity.
With the university assuming little or no accountability, students have no choice but to seek support elsewhere. StandWithUs Canada is an affiliate of a 19-year-old international non-profit Israel education organization that is inspired by a love for Israel and the belief that education is the road to peace.
This school year, StandWithUs Canada is grateful to welcome three Emerson Fellows to York to help combat antisemitism: Hailey Merten, Beata Fourmanovskis, and Pablo Gonzalez.
Founded in 2007 with a generous grant from Los Angeles philanthropists Rita and Steve Emerson, the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship is a prestigious one-year program that recruits, trains, educates, and inspires pro-Israel college student leaders on campuses throughout North America, the United Kingdom and Brazil.
In early August, Hailey, Beata, and Pablo participated in the StandWithUs Emerson Conference, held via Zoom with over 100 university students across North America, who learned about Israel, education strategies, legal rights, combating the boycott and other campaigns against Israel, and more.
The sessions were important for Fellows to expand outreach and educate more students about Israel, said Beata, a fourth-year student studying towards her Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree at York’s Schulich School of Business.
“Many students on campus simply do not know about Israel or have no opinion about it. As Fellows, it is important to educate the uninformed so they understand the importance of Israel. One way is by building relationships with other clubs so they can partner with the Jewish community for events,” Beata said.
Pablo Gonzalez, a third-year biotechnology student at York University, took part in the StandWithUs Canada Insight Program. Through this opportunity, Pablo traveled to Israel for 10 days and gained first-hand knowledge about the country’s current geopolitical situation.
Travelling across the country, the undergraduate students met with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim locals and community leaders to learn about their perspectives on current political issues.
“I never visited Israel before, and the diverse ethnic, religious, and political spectrum of the country impressed me,” recalled Pablo. “Through these experiences, I learned so much about the people of Israel, and gained an appreciation for the political nuances and intricacies that are too often described in the media as black-and-white. I left this trip with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Israeli government in ensuring Israel is a safe and welcoming home for all.”
After returning home to Toronto and feeling strongly about wanting to make a positive change based on his experiences in Israel, Pablo applied to the StandWithUs Canada Hispanic Emerson Fellowship. Now, he’s sharing his Israel experiences on campus and educating his peers about the country’s challenges and accomplishments.
Despite strong antisemitic sentiment among some students and faculty at York University, and protests that turned violent last autumn, Pablo said he is “convinced that furthering education about Israel is vital to build a safer campus where we can discuss diverse perspectives with mutual respect.”
Even though the Emerson conference took place virtually, “it had an enormous impact on the students by inspiring and supporting them to continue to educate about Israel,” he said.
Hailey Merten a fourth-year social work student and StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellow at York University, has faced institutionalized discrimination because of her Jewish identity. What she learned from the conference is that she is not alone in the battle.
“I have my StandWithUs Canada family beside me to support me through the good and bad times I may face,” she said. “The understanding that I am no longer alone when dealing with antisemitism on campus is such a relief.”
By organizing events with StandWithUs Canada in which students of differing views on Israel can discuss their opinions constructively and civilly, Pablo, Hailey and Beata look forward to building bridges between communities and focusing on shared solutions on campus.
Steven Greenwood is the executive director of StandWithUs Canada.