By Carly Yoshida-Butryn
On Wednesday night in an Ottawa hotel, the Canadian Federation of Students quietly killed a motion by some Ryerson students for the union to boycott Israel. By a two-thirds majority, the group decided that the CFS’s National General Meeting wouldn’t even consider the proposal.
The boycott was just the latest in a string of incidents that are highlighting Israeli-Palestinian tensions on Ryerson’s campus. Student groups have screened anti-Zionist movies, invited Palestinian speakers and covered the school with posters depicting Israeli military violence. Much of the RSU’s leadership is pro-Palestinian, and last year’s president posted anti-Israeli propaganda on his public Facebook account.
It’s part of a wider wave of Israeli-Palestinian activism that’s swept universities in Canada and abroad, and has already exploded in violence on other campuses.
The increase in activism has left students on both sides of the debate saying that things have gone too far.
“If the motion did go through, I think there would have been conflict,” says Isaac Elfaks, co-president of Hillel. He’s concerned that actions like Kere’s motion would damage the tolerant atmosphere on campus.
Muhammad Ali Jabbar, a Palestinian sympathizer and former RSU President, agreed that the anti-Israeli motion was the wrong move.
“Rather than helping, it divides the student body and creates animosity,” he says. “Having a discussion is more productive than staging a boycott.”
Heather Kere, however, disagrees. The RSU’s VP Education argues that people shouldn’t be offended by action against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, which she equates with South Africa’s system of racial apartheid.
“I hope students — Jewish or not — understand it’s not an attack on Judaism,” she says. “My concern with this campaign is the human rights of all people.”
Nora Loreto, RSU’s President, says the message goes too far. “If this had happened at York, there would have been riots already,” she says. “We have to make sure we’re not dividing the students at Ryerson. It’s not the way the executive should be operating.”
The same problems that Ryerson is facing have already cropped up at other schools that have grappled with the debate.
Two unions of British academics voted to boycott Israeli universities and shun their colleagues in the country. In September 2002, hundreds of Palestinian sympathizers protested a speech by former Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu at Concordia University, pushing through security barriers and smashing windows.
The riot was the culmination of growing tension at the Montreal university, where the students’ union backed the Palestinian side in the dispute.
York University experienced similar unrest. Last year, pro-Israeli demonstrators crashed a Palestinian protest and the two groups tried to shout each other down as they occupied a foyer in the Toronto school.
“There are student groups who, while they don’t use hate speech, they do present hurtful speech and hurtful materials to campus,” says Tilley Shames, associate director of Hillel of Greater Toronto.
“They take an anti-Israel stance.” Both of the unions involved in Britain’s academic boycotts reversed their decisions in the face of internal dissent, while students at Concordia ultimately diffused the tensions.
A new slate of moderates took over the students’ union and eased off their support for the Palestinian side of the debate. Israeli and Palestinian groups started cooperating and organizing events together.
At Ryerson, Elfaks says that dialogue is the best way to prevent tensions.
“The way to progress on this issue is to talk it out,” says Elfaks. “It’s something that has been happening on this campus and it’s way better than a boycott.”
Leah del Vecchio, VP Student Life at the Concordia Students’ Union, argues that the students’ union shouldn’t favour one side over another.
“There has to be a sense of responsibility,” she says. “You really have to be a strong executive and make sure what you’re doing is in the best interest of the students.”
— with files from Adrian Morrow