Jewish group fears climate of hate

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By Sandie Benitah

Members of the Jewish campus group Hillel are accusing RyeSAC of playing favourites and not taking their concerns seriously.

Victor Volfson, a member of both Hillel and RyeSAC’s Board of Directors, said RyeSAC’s decision to take an official stance against the pending war in Iraq has created an uncomfortable atmosphere for Ryerson’s Jewish students.

“The anti-war movement is opening the door for bashing Israel,” he said. “They hate the US, the US is friendly with Israel and so it’s like they’re guilty by association.”

Volfson’s concern RyeSAC’s anti-war stance stems from leaflets denouncing Israel’s existence that were distributed at a campus rally in October. His concern grew when he didn’t see any action being taken by the student council, even after he spoke to RyeSAC President Darren Cooney.

But Cooney insists he did respond, even though the group never posed an official complaint.

“It was [campus groups administrator] Leatrice Spevack who told me about their concerns, and I spoke to [Hillel] immediately after that,” he said. “Unfortunately, nobody spoke to us during the rally. We would have investigated who was distributing the material. I told them those groups would not be on our invite list.”

Last week, Hillel received a letter from Cooney saying that although he is certain RyeSAC or any of their affiliates were not involved in distributing the material, he has little control over the outside groups who visit campus.

That response was too little, too late for some Hillel members.

“When there was a concern about a pro-life group of campus, the complainant received an almost instant response,” said Hillel member Noam Guberman. “When Hillel complains, we have to wait three months.”

Cooney said he wrote his response immediately after being notified that Hillel was anticipating his comments.

Still unsatisfied with RyeSAC’s actions, Hillel plans on writing their response to Cooney’s letter.

The tension between the two groups was exacerbated last week, when RyeSAC staff member Denise Hammond forwarded e-mails through her RyeSAC account, calling for a protest of Daniel Pipes, an outspoken, right-winged supporter of Israel, scheduled to speak to students at York University.

Hammond said the protest had nothing to do with Pipes and everything to do with his web site, a site that critiques the Middle Eastern studies in North America by providing recommended readings and analyzing academics on contemporary Middle Eastern issues for perceived errors and biases towards American and Israeli policy.

Hammond said her concern is with censorship and she spoke out on behalf of the coalition for academic freedom at York.

“People at York were concerned,” she said. “Their concern is that an academic institution shouldn’t censor people.”

But Guberman said there’s more to her concern than freedom of speech.

“There’s definitely more to it than academic freedom,” he said. “She is taking a stand on a political issue which is why they didn’t want him tos peak – because of his political agenda.”

In fact, one of the letters forwarded by Hammond explains the web site by saying it “actively promotes racism and censorship on campuses by compiling “dossiers” academics who oppose American and Israeli government policy including the war on Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.”

Volfson agrees with Guberman on the underlying political tones.

“The language is very flagrant, very loaded, very anti-Israel,” he said. “We’re all for freedom of speech but if Denise has an opinion, she should spread it outside of her RyeSAC title.”

The mounting tension is why Hillel is speaking out, he added, before the situation gets any worse.

“I know this is extreme, but we feel this could be the early stages of Concordia,” said Volfson, referring to the violent protest of an Israeli speaker at Concordia University last fall. “When there’s smoke there’s not necessarily fire, but a spark could turn it into something very dangerous.”

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