Commentary | Hyde Park: No gains in dividing McGill

It never occurred to me to consider the significance of the title of Ephraim Kishon’s 1953 play His Name Precedes Him until the SSMU General Assembly (GA) last Thursday – where 675 McGill undergraduates filled the SSMU cafeteria to capacity, and more stood outside hoping to get in. No GA last year met qualified quorum, so it stands to reason that nearly all of the students present were gathered to debate something in particular, which they were: Agenda item 6.2, a motion regarding SSMU condemnation of recent Israeli bombings of educational institutions in Gaza.

My interest is not in criticizing the SSMU speaker for a poorly-run meeting, or in rebuking SSMU Council for taking advantage of the number of students present to pass old agenda issues. Rebuke may be in order for keeping nearly 700 students in a crowded room for almost three hours to vote on “No Pants Fridays” and “Motion Regarding Administrators Identified as Star Wars Characters,” but Council’s disrespect for my time and body odour is neither my main concern nor is it worth more of my time and sweat.

My interest is in conveying how I felt Thursday and in illustrating how damaging the GA was to Jewish-Muslim and Arab-Israeli relations on campus.

Thursday’s GA was not the “privilege” of debating an issue important to me, as the SSMU speaker suggested. In fact, I have never had a more negative experience in dealing with the Middle East conflict. Until the GA, my encounters with Muslims and Arabs at McGill were personal and positive. I honour and respect my Arab and Muslim classmates and friends, and I believe they hold the same regard for me. We differ in opinion and loyalty where the Middle East is concerned, but there is an understanding that we can connect on an individual level as peers, classmates, and friends. We learn from each other, respect one another, trust one another.

I am hard-pressed to find words for the heavy sadness I felt standing in the SSMU cafeteria on February 5. I was discomfited at the knowledge that nearly my entire Arabic class, a group united by mutual respect, was present and ideologically divided. I was devastated the moment that ideological division became a physical divide.

Unable to decide concretely whether a two-thirds majority had been reached on a motion that objected to the consideration of the Gaza question, the Speaker separated people in the room and I stood at odds with half my classmates, looking at them across the room and seeing a group turned against me, knowing they saw the same.

I was pained and ravaged inside by a new awareness of the extent to which my name precedes me. My name says that I am Jewish, and proudly so. My name suggests that my parents are Jewish, affiliated with their religion, and speak at least a little bit of Hebrew, all of which is true. Now my name also declares with near certainty which side of the room I stood on.

Before Thursday, there were no two sides of the room at McGill. There were, and still are, various outlets for religious, political, and humanitarian expression. Bringing a condemnation of the Gaza bombings to SSMU reduced the matter to a stark, unrepresentative two-sided debate. Thursday’s meeting reflected a misunderstanding of and disregard for the intricacies and complexities that make the issue so sensitive to begin with, and it placed at odds McGill students who never saw need to argue.

I haven’t stated which side I stood on, nor do I have to; my name precedes me. I did not attend the GA because I support the bombing of schools anywhere – I don’t. Nor was I there to vote down a motion that addresses important humanitarian issues. I went because SSMU is not the venue for discussing anything that touches on the Middle East conflict.

There is room for discussion of other contentious political issues, assuming they are relevant to the University. There should have been much longer, in-depth consideration of McGill weapons research and campus military recruiting, and it is shameful that those issues were slighted and expedited to discuss something that never should have been on the table.

I have no inspirational words of conclusion. I only hope that anyone I may have betrayed across the room can recognize that names are introductions, not life stories.

Yael Greenberg is a U0 Arts student, and you can contact her at yael.greenberg@mail.mcgill.ca.


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