Any student enrolled in a Montreal university can quickly encounter displays of pure or Israel-related antisemitism. BDS groups and ordinary students bashing Israel and spreading outrageous lies about the country and often, about all Jews, is an unfortunate reality. Ideally, this should concern every student wanting to fight discrimination.
I just completed a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science at the University of Montreal. I was lucky to attend a university where, compared to McGill and Concordia, the Israeli-Palestinian issue was not as inflammatory. Instead, at the U of M, there were no violent anti-Israel protests such as the ones at Concordia (see here), and the university did not approve any BDS legislation. On the contrary, the administration’s relationship with Israel remains strong. Last year, the University of Montreal sent a delegation to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Netanya Academic College, IDC Herzliya, and the Knesset. The delegation comprised of, among others, the Dean of the Faculty of Law, the Director of International Affairs and the Associate Vice-Rector to the French language. Their goal was to strengthen the development of French in Israel and to encourage shared research in law and medicine. The situation is less optimal at McGill University. A few years ago, one student, expelled from the Students’ Society of McGill University claimed that this was because of his Jewish-sounding name. The consensus in the Jewish student community at the time was that antisemitism was, indeed, the reason behind the Society’s decision.
Anti-Israel attitudes I witnessed did not come from university administrators, but rather from the young teachers and guest speakers I encountered in my political studies classes. These people, unlike deans and rectors, directly interact with students. What they choose to teach or say will considerably influence students’ attitudes. For example, I attended an international relations course where the class was required to view and comment on one of four preselected documentaries about different world issues. Following the viewing, we were to discuss the film with its respective director. I could not resist choosing one about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I wanted to see how this university-approved documentary would present the conflict, as well as students’ perceptions of Israel. I was pessimistic as regards both issues: Unfortunately, my pessimism was justified.
The documentary’s director Robi Damelin was the spokesperson for Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Reconciliation and Peace. The social organization connects Israeli and Palestinian families that lost a family member due to the conflict. The organization’s goal, she claimed, is to support honest dialogue and reconciliation between the two sides. At the time, I didn’t know that the organization’s real face was much less benign than it appeared. NGO Monitor studied the organization and determined that it promotes “a highly biased view of the conflict based on the Palestinian narrative and draws an immoral equivalence between terror victims and terrorists. While [this NGO] advocates for “reconciliation,” “dialogue,” and “knowledge of the other,” it exploits the grief of families and the language of peace to promote a highly divisive, contentious, and narrow personal agenda.” (NGO Monitor, 2018).
Robi Damelin is also a known anti-Israel activist. According to NGO Monitor, she regularly travels to the US “on behalf of the organization promoting views that place sole blame for the continuation of the conflict on Israel.” Moreover, ” [She] regularly utilizes emotive language to elicit sympathy from her audience; refers to Hamas terrorism and Israeli self-defense as a “cycle of violence,” thereby presenting a distorted view of the conflict” (NGO Monitor, 2018). I later learned that the organization visits the university yearly. This bothers me. There are many esteemed think tanks based in Israel that present a realistic view of Israel, but which are never invited to attend. On the rare occasion when organizations and individuals are invited to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue, only anti-Israel activists are welcomed. There could not be more obvious signs of bias than this among the institutional ranks of the university.
Robi Damelin’s film is one example. The documentary portrayed Israel in an incredibly biased and unrealistic manner. She cherry-picked specific cases that distorted the reality of the conflict. Soon into the documentary, it was evident which way the wind was blowing. According to Damelin, Israel was a belligerent regional bully, as well as an apartheid state comparable to 1980s-era South Africa. The State of Israel, we were told, was solely responsible for the suffering on both sides. The documentarist interviewed the most far-right settlers whose views are not representative of most citizens. It was their perspectives and opinions that impacted the students most, as was apparent afterward. The Palestinians, on the other hand, were presented as a group of oppressed and defenseless people. That their political leadership repeatedly rejected peace and continues to engage in terrorism and indiscriminate violence against Israel, let alone paying terrorists to kill, wasn’t even hinted at.
Discussions between the students and director that took place afterward centered on the Israeli settlers, which the film demonized. As well, students expressed astonishment that Israel, as her documentary implied, regularly carries out overtly discriminatory and violent practices against Palestinians. What upset me most was Damelin condescension towards Jews. She claimed that Jews are quick to call every criticism of Israel anti-Semitic, thus, stripping the word of its weight and meaning
. In classroom discussions, a tacit agreement existed between students and teachers that Israel is a colonialist, racist, or apartheid state, and not one that strives to reach peace with Palestinians. I’ve often tried – whether at Hillel or elsewhere on campus – combatting these false perceptions through discussions with students and teachers. But, there is still much work to do.
More infuriating still; not only radicalized and misled students’ express anti-Israel biases. These biases also stem from the institutional ranks of universities even when relations between the top echelons of the university and the state of Israel are excellent. Universities, as beacons of enlightenment, teach critical teaching skills. Or so we are told. For the time being, though, ideological leanings and partisanship persist in its teachings, especially when it comes to Israel. Schools in Montreal are no exception.