On November 4, the Jewish Studies Student Association (JSSA), along with the Bronfman Israel Experience Centre, commonly known as Birthright, hosted a pizza lunch and discussion with three IDF soldiers in the Jewish Studies building. During the event, protesters gathered outside to demonstrate against the presence of Israeli military personnel.
Joseph Shapell, a member of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), explained that SPHR had seen the event advertised and individual members of SPHR had decided to protest the event. “[We were protesting] on the principle of having military personnel on campus…I think a campus has to be a safe, secure environment for students,” Shapell said.
JSSA President Peter Fusco was surprised by the event’s high attendance and by the ensuing protest and interest among students. “Our events usually draw seven to eight people, and usually for the free food,” Fusco said. “Way more people showed up than I thought would.”
Fusco explained that the JSSA did not organize the event and that an event with IDF soldiers was “unprecedented” for the JSSA. Fusco said he was contacted through Eric Kaplan, Chair of the Jewish Studies Department, who was himself approached by Birthright.
“In reality it was just me sending out an email. I didn’t organize it… I just promoted it…it wasn’t really our event. We shy away from those kind of…loaded political issues,” Fusco said.
Fusco explained that the JSSA tries to be aware of their role as an academic student association: “[The JSSA is] a student organization that represents an academic department at McGill which is obviously supposed to be neutral, apolitical, objective as best it can, because it’s Jewish studies not a Jewish organization. … It’s not for Jewish students, it’s for people who want to study Jewish culture, history, and religion,” Fusco said.
“I think [protesters] found it inappropriate that a non-academic event involving a Zionist organization, which is what Birthright is… was on campus and that it was sponsored by a student group that was supposed to be academically oriented,” Fusco said about the JSSA’s involvement in the event.
Shapell attended the event and listened to the soldiers’ talk. The soldiers spoke at intervals about their lives and then took time to answer questions. Shapell said that “things went downhill very quickly.”
Shapell described the reaction of others at the event, saying that people criticized those who vocally disagreed with the soldiers. According to Shapell, a student in the audience told him to “be respectful and keep quiet” after Shapell questioned a soldier on civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.
Fusco’s view of events was different: “It seemed to me from my perspective that it was a very honest, open type of dialogue with these guys… They were speaking honestly about their lives, how they grew up, and what position they put themselves into or [had] been presented with. They seemed to me down to earth” Fusco said.
“[The soldiers] have to be willing to take questions form all sides. If there isn’t room for that then it isn’t an academic space. It’s abusing academic space – using space simply to further an ideological aim, which is inappropriate. They came to talk about their experience as soldiers: I have a right to ask about aspects of their military service that I am curious about,” Shapell said.
“They weren’t propagandists, throwing this staunch Zionist line,” Fusco said. “I don’t think it was recruitment as much as it was positive PR for Birthright.”
Josh Pepin, Director of the Bronfman Israel Experience Centre, said the soldiers were “there for educational reasons, not for political reasons.”
Pepin went on to say that Israeli soldiers are not allowed to discuss politics in public events.
Pepin emphasized that the soldiers are “normal 18 to 20-year -olds with different lives,” referring to Israel’s policy of conscripting all 18-year-old non-Arab citizens into the military.
Shapell disagreed: “There are students here [at McGill] who are from the West Bank,” he said. “I think for Palestinian students the presence of IDF soldiers is a scary thing.”
“I think the administration has responsibility if military personnel are going to be on campus to make it as academic as possible and as open and unintimidating as possible,” Shapell continued. “Administration should be cognizant of when military will be on campus.”
Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson said in an email to The Daily that he was not aware that IDF soldiers were on campus. “I don’t know why they would need approval for what seems to have been a meeting of their group in space in their department,” Mendelson wrote. “McGill does not ban members of the military from campus.”
“The University staunchly upholds freedom of expression on campus within the bounds of the law,” he continued.
Fusco echoed Mendelson’s assessment of free speech on campus, saying, “It’s totally appropriate to have Israeli soldiers on campus to speak. … It’s important to talk to people like that from a different perspective regardless of how worked up people get about the political issue.”
He added, however, that the collaboration with Birthright was problematic.
“I wouldn’t co-sponsor with Birthright or an organization like that again,” he said. “I would want to do it myself, in that it’s a purely academic, objective debate.”