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Letter: Jewish students must define their own experiences on campus

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In a recent column, Without the Labour of Black Students and Faculty, McGill’s Anti-Racist Efforts Would Not Exist, the McGill Daily Editorial Board rightfully commends Black students for their work in creating a shift towards inclusivity at McGill. Non-Black students must be cognizant of this momentum, the Board argues, and help “support this labour.”

As a Jewish McGill student who has encountered bigotry firsthand on account of my identity, I wholeheartedly agree. 

In fact, I would argue that we need to adopt this mentality while combating similar threats on campus such as Islamophobia, homophobia, and antisemitism. If we are to create a truly anti-racist environment at McGill, we must listen to students from these communities, learn from them, and unite against all forms of prejudice.

An excellent example of such unity took place in February, “in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and the many Blacks and Jews who stood together in the fight for civil rights,” when notable figures such as Mayim Bialik, Zach Banner, Tiffany Hadish, and others formed the Black-Jewish Entertainment Alliance to combat racism and antisemitism.

It is particularly refreshing to see Banner, the Black offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, serve as an advocate against antisemitism because he sees its parallels to racism. Just as Black Lives Matter encourages us to listen to members of the Black community and learn, we must do the same with the Jewish community, he argues. 

Banner has come to understand that Jewish people are constantly targeted with hateful slurs and stereotypes, discrimination, or worse. A lot of the time they are attacked simply supporting Israel’s right to exist. I can corroborate this notion from my own experiences at McGill. 

Like many other Montrealers, I spent my gap year studying abroad. My first year at McGill, I was excited to share about being a transfer student from an Israeli university, which prompted surprisingly hostile reactions. 

That year, in November of 2016, Chabad — the center for Jewish life on campus — was trying to bring students together by creating a peace mural on campus. As a proud, young Jewish student, I decided to stick around and speak to the crowd of diverse students that had formed. Within an hour, the committee that was previously known as BDS McGill showed up and created a “fence” around the mural, blocking it with large signs that called for the dismantlement of “apartheid” Israel. 

Attendees, myself included, were suddenly surrounded by students who propagated a message of hatred and contempt, rejecting our shared humanity and message of peace. They outright refused to hear our narrative – that Israel is where we pray towards, where our language and peoplehood were created, and an integral part of who we are as Jews. 

In my opinion, it was a wasted opportunity to bring coexistence to McGill. It was also the first time I felt under attack because of my Jewish identity. 

A few months later, some of the students from the BDS protest recognized me in the library and made the effort to “accidentally” brush shoulders with me. I never would have imagined I’d experience it at a purportedly safe campus like McGill.

These incidents affected me as a Jewish student on a personal level. But there were times we felt targeted on a collective level, such as when Igor Sadikov sent out his notorious “Punch a Zionist” tweet and when Jordyn Wright was targeted by SSMU over her support for Israel. 

As a 2018 landmark survey of Canadian Jews notes, supporting Israel is “the normative form of Canadian Jewish identification.” It has nothing to do with negating the experience of Palestinian Arabs. But at McGill, Jews cannot display any love for their indigenous homeland without fear of being silenced or harassed. 

There is a strong feeling amongst our school’s Jewish population that the anti-Israel movement is fueling antisemitism on campus. Our land-based and spiritual relationship to the land is well-documented – it’s time McGill students acknowledge it. The success story of the Jewish liberation movement, otherwise known as Zionism, might make some uncomfortable, but that does not give them the right to define us. 

As Banner suggests, we have to fight racism and antisemitism with the same tools – by listening and learning. 

It is my hope that starting a dialogue will help others on campus understand the perspective of Jewish students, just as we must better understand the perspective of Black students.

Clearly, Jews have felt unwelcome, afraid, and even unsafe at McGill. My time as a Jewish student on campus is a testament to this. For the sake of the next generation of students, it’s time to follow Banner’s example. Maybe that way, once we’re in-person again, we can try another attempt at a peace mural – together.