My name is Afroza, and I’m a fourth year sociology major at York University. I’m a student leader as well as a mentor on campus, and would consider myself fairly active and engaged in student life. As I am graduating this year, I’ve witnessed four years of the effects and aftermath of protests on the Israeli-Palestine conflict that occurred on campus. I have been asked to speak a bit about that experience as a neutral student and how that’s affected not only the atmosphere and the way university space is constructed and used, but how it also affects our impression of York University as an institution. By neutral I mean that I have no political or cultural or emotional stake in this conflict, nor will I pretend to know how deep this conflict goes in history and politics. I do know, however, how this conflict has affected my education and overall impression of York University, especially as far as my safety is concerned.
I found out the hard way just how political York could get in my first couple of years at York, via witnessing the protests and rallies on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Ever since, I have not only witnessed how the space at York, the so-called student space, transformed into an arena where the two opposing opinions faced off and disrupted the flow and atmosphere of a major location on campus, but how it had a knack for hurting innocent bystanders. Most of these protests or rallies occurred in and around Vari Hall, a central location that gets a lot of student traffic. Students who were merely walking through Vari Hall to get to class would have to endure the verbal abuse exchanged between the two sides, which sometimes intentionally or unintentionally, hurt the same bystanders. Tensions ran high, and although we, as bystanders and neutral students, maybe not invested in this conflict in any shape or form, we were forced to be a part of it, and forced to witness and surrender our student space turned into a hate-space. We have also had to endure hearing reports of incidents where certain students belonging to groups that were politically charged in its interest and investment in the Israeli-Palestine conflict were targeted for intimidation, threats, verbal abuse and more. I cannot even begin to fathom how they went home after a day like that, and find the courage within themselves to come back to York the following day after facing that much abuse and hate for simply having an opinion.
As a neutral student, none of what happened during these rallies and protests, especially during Israeli Apartheid Week, made me feel that I was safe on campus, that York University is a tolerant and accepting university. It made me feel that York and the York community were unable to, in a mature way, have a conversation about this conflict that did not leave students feeling abused, hurt, unsafe and ignored. It is my belief that campus, above all others, is a part of an academic institution, a place of higher learning and education. So why is that in my years at York, I have witnessed so much bigotry, intolerance and ignorance, particularly around this issue? Granted York has, now, attempted to resolve these issues by providing students a way to be educated on the art of respectful and meaningful dialogue and putting restrictions on the kinds of activity that is acceptable in student spaces, it still has a long way to go in terms of repairing the damage done to our student space and to the image of York.