At 1 p.m. on Mar. 23, 2004, students from York University’s pro-Palestinian group, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, set up a mock West Bank checkpoint inside York’s Vari Hall. Some were dressed as Israeli soldiers emblazoned with the slogan “born to kill” on their backs, while others were garbed as Arab women.
The students impersonating soldiers pretended to beat the women who begged passerbys for help. Then the women fell forward, motionless, as the student soldiers held pretend guns over their heads in victory. Then in one final act of barbarity, they pretended to shoot the women in the head.
The Jewish students organization, Hillel, outraged by the impromptu street theatre, reacted by setting up their own protest and held vigil for victims of Palestinian suicide bombers. On their backs were t-shirts that read, “If I was a suicide bomber you’d be dead by now.”
Then, all hell broke loose. Students began to push and scream at each other. Campus security was called and police arrived on campus. The protest was broken up and both groups were banned from holding any activities until the university could determine what went wrong.
While strife between the two groups has infiltrated York’s campus and student government, it seems their Ryerson counterparts have been able to co-exist in a delication balance.
“I think in my heart we are a lot luckier at Ryerson,” says Leatrice Spevack, campus groups coordinator for RyeSAC.
“When I talk to my colleagues at York, I say ‘thank God I am working here.’ As difficult as it is, at least people aren’t tearing religious garments off each other.”
As tensions in the Middle-East continue to escalate, Spevack says she doesn’t think Ryerson will experience the type of confrontation seen at York and other university campuses. The difference at Ryerson, she says, is that people talk to each other.
Mohammad Aboursweird, senior advisor for the Arab Students Association at Ryerson, says he speaks regularly with the Hillel leaders, and both groups want peace.
“We go to each other’s events and we sit and talk with each other,” he says.
Victor Volfson, president of Hillel at Ryerson, says he has a good working relationship with the Arab Student Association and they have worked very hard to build that relationship. Like Abour-sweid, Volfson believes it is up to student leaders to set an example and show communication is possible. To ensure this, Ryerson’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment Prevention has facilitated a dialogue that has helped the two groups keep the lines of communication open.
However, things aren’t perfect, says Ahmed Arshi, president of the Muslim Student Association. He says Ryerson’s administration is being naive if they think there is no tension between Arab and Jewish student groups.
“I see it in the faces of Arab students when they go to events held by Jewish students and I see it in the faces of Jewish students when they go to an Arab event,” Arshi says.
But Arshi admits he doesn’t think tension at Ryerson will turn the campus into another York.
Across the GTA in recent weeks there have been a number of anti-Semitic crimes. Most recently, a secondary school teacher had a swastika painted on her car and three youths were charged with desecrating headstones in a Jewish cemetery.
Three weeks ago, a Jewish student at Ryerson was allegedly verbally assaulted on campus and spat on. No charges have been laid yet.
Abour-sweid condemned condemned the violence and says while others are crossing lines in the city, campus groups are carefully keeping all sides at ease.
“We are hanging by a very thin line,” he says. “I could say things and they could so easily be misconstrued.”
Abour-sweid was on hand to speak to students at a recent event called Palestine Vision that was sponsored by the ASA to raise awareness about the Israeli-PAlestinian conflict.
In a toned-down version of the street-theatre style performances held at York, Palestine Vision was open to students who wanted to make their way through an exhibit of pictures and literature about the conflict.
In one picture there was a blood-stained handprint on a wall, a young woman in the foreground and underneath a caption that read: “16-year-old Palestinian Samu Al-Mashiri who was shot.”
Another haunting picture showed small children being faced down by Israeli tanks.
Abour-sweid said the point of the event was to get people talking, not sow the seeds of strife.
“We are working for peace. If someone has a problem with this or anything I say, I want them to come to me and tell me. Then we can talk.”
Arshi says groups should stay away from politically motivated activities. This doesn’t mean students shouldn’t be allowed to express opinions, Arshi says, but to tread carefully with such a minefield of beliefs.
“I saw the reaction on the Jewish students faces. I saw they hated what they were seeing,” he says about Palestine Vision and the response it got.
Arshi agrees that lines of communication must remain open on campus and, like Abour-sweid, he meets with Hillel leaders regularly, but the members of his group don’t always talk with Hillel members.
“I know the executives of both groups work with each other. I will work with the executives of Hillel, but my members will never work with Hillel – the issues are just too different.”
Arashi says he thinks Ryerson’s administration isn’t doing enough. He says they are taking a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach that is inadequate.
“I don’t think they care. What I see is that they are not even trying to solve any problems with student groups,” he says.
“My experience has been that the administration says, ‘go do whatever you want, just don’t break any rules. But the support is just not there.
“there is one way to stop this: The university has to sit and listen to student leaders and actively listen to what’s going on.”
Spevack says Ryerson’s administration takes a mostly hands-off approach to student groups and leaves the coordination to RyeSAC.
With the exception of an Interfaith Committee, Spevack isn’t aware of any other body set up by the administration to hear concerns from student groups directly.
Spevack says she speaks with Ann Whiteside of Ryerson’s discrimination and harassment prevention office to discuss guidelines when a student group puts up displays or bring in speakers to keep everyone at peace.
“What makes Ryerson special is its multiculturalism, but the realist is a multicultural campus mirrors greater world tensions and conflicts. If we turn a blind eye to this tension we can’t give the students the support that they need.”