From the Desk of Avi Benlolo: New Ideas to Solve Complicit Antisemitism on University Campuses

March 1, 2019

Editorial

The nine MPs who bolted from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK left because they refused to be complicit in institutionalized antisemitism. Institutionalized antisemitism can filter through and permeate an organization, even while most people affiliated with the organization are not participants nor are they necessarily antisemitic themselves. This is particularly the case today on university campuses.

In Holocaust education, we teach about complicity and bystanders. Our Holocaust survivors regularly instruct students, teachers, police officers and others not to be bystanders to antisemitism. Silence to antisemitism is a form of acquiescence to the bigotry and hatred that informs this form of racism. Looking the other way to a crime makes one complicit in the crime. Holocaust survivors readily recount how their neighbours stood silent and in many cases cheered on as they were marched off by the Nazis.

Over nearly two decades, campaigns like Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement have normalized anti-Israel and anti-Zionist behaviour within educational programs. Student-led groups like Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and faculty itself have arrived to a point where antisemitism no longer feels like antisemitism – it's a part of university life.

Over the years, universities have argued that student and faculty unions are independent structures and do not represent the university. University boards argue that student and faculty unions are separate entities and are not the official voice of the university. Despite this, antisemitic groups are acting primarily on university property while utilizing its resources. This makes university boards and bystander faculty complicit to the hatred against the Jewish people.

The community at large has already distanced itself from financially supporting most universities for this reason. In many cases, Jewish students have shown preferential attendance at universities they consider “safer.” At least one university has seen a major decline in Jewish enrollment – a cause for concern.

Steps can be taken especially by board members and faculty to force action and attention to this matter. At universities like the University of Toronto where graduate students have voted overwhelmingly to endorse the BDS campaign, faculty can decline to oversee graduate students (even while some may suffer). Faculty may also choose an unofficial or official “work to rule” – to minimize their involvement with university life, so long as the university continues looking the other way.

At universities where institutionalized antisemitism is becoming the norm, board members may choose to resign or place their board membership on hold. They may argue for a public inquiry and push for investigation of programs and events which lend to the toxic climate of antisemitism. To stand by idly and allow hatred on campus makes all those in power complicit in the struggle against antisemitism.  

These are strong words. But in an environment where antisemitism rates are increasing and violence is being perpetrated against Jewish communities (Pittsburgh), we are quickly running out of time. Words and condemnations are important. But it's time for university leaders to end their complicity and protest by taking personal and independent action. I think we have seen plenty of that in Canada and the world this week.

This week, FSWC released a petition to send this important message to the University of Toronto. Help us call on the leaders of the university to condemn the BDS movement and ensure students are not given an outlet on campus to spew antisemitism and comments that delegitimize and demonize the state of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

~Avi

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