By Adrian Morrow
Posters blanket the concrete pillars in the Student Campus Centre, promoting everything from social events to travel to religion as students wander by. Buried among them is a simple black and white flyer advertising a movie: Zionism: White Supremacy, Imperialism or Both? Politically-charged posters aren’t foreign to Ryerson, but for some students they’re more than just posters.
Aviv Polyakov returned to Toronto two years ago after spending her adolescence in Israel and serving a full term in the Israeli army. Since she enrolled at Ryerson this fall, the social work student noticed the leaflets criticizing the country she once served. She says they paint an unfair picture of Israel.
“I’ve been seeing what I think are really offensive posters on campus,” she said. “Hate literature, propaganda, call it whatever you want, it’s not okay.”
In one poster, it appeared that a picture of a soldier was photoshopped next to an Arab woman begging for her life, she said.
No one is pointing out the humanitarian aid Israel gave to Ethiopia during a famine, or the refugees from the former Soviet Union that were admitted to Israel, she adds. “For me, it’s less about religion. I just think it’s racism – if it was an Asian or a Black person (on the posters) it would not be tolerated.”
Polyakov was born in Canada and moved to Israel as a child. She spent her obligatory military service working on a project to help street youth get back into the education system.
“I never hurt anyone, I did social work in the army. If anything, I helped,” she said.
Jonathan Vandersluis, president of Jewish student group Hillel @ Ryerson, agrees that there have been provocative leaflets on campus, but says that tensions have generally been kept low.
“We were pretty upset” about the Zionism movie, he said. “The posters are offensive and borderline confrontational.”
He has considered speaking to the office of discrimination and harassment on campus in hopes of making sure that posters are less confrontational in the future.
While there have been tensions and bad feelings, Vanderluis said that it’s not as bad as at other universities and that Hillel has played a part in trying to avoid confrontation.
“The way we deal with events is more peaceful,” he said, adding that they try to schedule events on different days than pro-Palestinian events with the hope of allowing both sides to have their say. However, he doesn’t believe the situation is getting better. In particular, he is troubled that the United Black Students @ Ryerson (UBSR), which is screening Zionism, has begun working closely with the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights student group.
However, UBSR members stress that the point of the film is to show that Zionism is not a form of Jewish patriotism, but an imperialist program that predates Judaism. What’s more, their efforts to discuss the issue have been disrupted by fellow students.
Saron Ghebressellassie, a third-year radio and television arts student and a member of the UBSR said that pro-Palestinian posters have been torn down and vandalized with racist graffiti. Posters for the group’s film screening this week have been ripped down frequently, she said.
At previous events both at Ryerson and other schools, Israeli supporters and some members of Hillel have shown up to heckle, she charges.
“They’re very immature. They’re notorious for disrupting Arab or anti-Zionist events.”
However, the group has also received significant support for events concerning Palestine from other student groups and some faculty. The Department of Politics and Governance sponsored a panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Ryerson last month and the Department of Philosophy organized a solidarity event for Palestine.
“People are so afraid of being labelled anti-Semitic for criticizing Zionism,” she said.
“(The movie) is trying to set apart the concept of Zionism from Judaism,” said Heather Kere, president of UBSR and a Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) vice president-elect. “A lot of people think it’s anti-Jewish and it’s not.”
The film was made by the late Kwame Turé (better known as Stokely Carmichael) a black activist who rose to prominence on the 1960s as a leader of the Black Panthers and the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee.
Kere is hoping the film will shed light on the concept of Zionism.
“Not a lot of people know (about it).”
Michael R. Marrus, a history professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, believes that the test for any group is whether they are trying to solve the problem or if they are “stirring the pot of hatred.”
“I think it is the job of universities to contribute a higher level of analysis and discourse than you would find in the community,” he said. “You don’t need a university to be an amplifier for sloganeering.”
Muhammad Ali Jabbar, president of the RSU, said he hasn’t heard any complaints surrounding Israeli-Palestinian events on campus and doesn’t believe the situation is getting worse.
Last November, The Eyeopener pointed out that Jabbar had posted photos supportive of Palestine to his Facebook profile, but Jabbar does not believe they were political.
“It’s not mine or anyone’s point of view; no one would say that you’re allowed to put someone behind an apartheid wall,” he said.
With the advent of Students for Human Rights in Palestine having a group on campus, he believes that both sides of the issue will be represented at Ryerson.
“Now you can sit down and have a dialogue,” said Jabbar. “Ryerson is a campus where students from different background can get together and have a common front. People should be very proud of that.”
Polyakov, however, still feels isolated and bothered by the posters. She believes she is the only former Israeli soldier on campus and that no one is standing up to what she says is a misrepresentation of Israel.
“We wanted to serve our country,” she said. “It was something I was proud of, now it’s something I have to be afraid of because I’m a minority in this school.”