A new McGill group calling itself Omeq is aiming to change the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine discourse on campus.
The group takes its name from the Hebrew and Arabic letters OMQ, the root letters of the words “depth” and “profundity” in both languages. According to Omeq VP External Michah Stettin, debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are consistently hampered by an adversarial atmosphere. He described the formation of Omeq in early 2010 as “a response to too much inflammatory rhetoric on campus, as opposed to substantive discussion and dialogue. We felt that there was a need to have a group on campus that was hospitable to numerous viewpoints.”
Stettin cited last winter’s SSMU General Assembly as a particular source of strife, when the McGill chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) brought forward a motion calling for the creation of a financial ethics review committee. The motion made numerous references to the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
Another reason for the new group, according to Stettin, is the frustration expressed by Omeq’s mostly Jewish members that positions taken by Hillel McGill, a major Jewish student group, did not reflect their own perspective. “I don’t think that there is such a thing as the Jewish political opinion. Thus if an organization takes a political opinion, there will be Jews that disagree. Hillel in the past has taken stances on issues on campus, and there were people on campus who were left outside of those positions,” he said. Stettin did, however, maintain that “Hillel is a great place for Jewish students and serves very important functions.”
Corey Omer, president of Hillel Montreal, said that he sees Omeq “as a positive thing, to have other groups. Any way Jewish students can represent themselves is good. Hillel strives to represent everybody; however, it is hard for one organization to say everything to everyone.”
The effort to create what Omeq’s executives call “increased dialogue” on campus has not, however, been met with universal acclaim. Sam Bick, a McGill student and SPHR member who stressed that he did not speak for the group as a whole, said that dialogue may hurt more than it helps. “People don’t come to the table on the same footing. … When there are different degrees of power, when there’s military violence happening, dialogue becomes a much different thing,” he said, adding that dialogue may end up diverting attention “from dealing with real issues.”
Through a series of talks on subjects such as anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the role of activism in Israel and Palestine, Stettin hopes that Omeq can act as a moderating force in conversations that have been tense on campus in recent years. A talk scheduled for last Wednesday, “Debunking Myths about Islam,” would have been the fourth this year for Omeq, but was postponed in favour of a general meeting due to a scheduling miscommunication.
Rex Brynen, a McGill Political Science professor, sees a respectful environment as something that will come naturally to Omeq because of its structure. “If you set up contexts–whether it’s speakers on campus or internal dialogue sessions–in which the understood rules of the game are that you can say what you want but you have to be respectful with it, [dialogue] doesn’t become terribly hard,” he said.
Brynen feels that organizations like Omeq have an important role to play in decreasing the polarization of campus discourse. “People get upset at occupation of the settlements, people get upset by terrorism, and and it sort of drives them apart and leads them to a situation where they can’t recognize common interests, so I think [OMEQ] kind of re-centres the discussion in useful ways,” he said.