Throughout the school year the York administration has received complaints and concerns from community members, professors and York students about the Arab-Israeli tensions on campus. The York administration’s standard response has been a re-assurance that York does not tolerate anti-Semitism, racism or speech that advocate violence or hate. Yet, this statement does not reflect the student experience.
One complaint came from a community member Rabbi Hoch in November when former British MP George Galloway spoke at York University. In an email to York’s President, Rabbi Hoch addressed his concern about “the tolerance [that was being displayed] for anti-Semitism and the lack of vigilance regarding the feeling of safety for Jewish students on campus.” York’s response was a threat to sue Rabbi Hoch if he did not retract his statements and issue an apology for defaming York’s President’s name. Alex Bilyk, a university spokesperson reassured the public that York “does not tolerate any racism or anti-Semitism on our campus.” Yet students at York approach me frequently to tell me that as a Christian I should hate Jews and not partner with them. I hear this kind of statements all year round, but people become most vocal when tensions are high on campus.
On the ground, student leaders were actively trying to raise their concerns about the Galloway event with the president of the York Federation of Students, Krishna Saravanamuttu, who was fined in 2009 for promoting anti-Semitism. Saravanamuttu ignored the emails. The student government sponsored Galloway event was not inclusive or representative of the student body and instead ‘educated’ students about only one side of the already heated political debate. Frustrated by the lack of response from the student government, students protested outside the event. After the Galloway event, a fight almost broke out as a small group of students, lead by Saravanamuttu, was instigating the protestors. The police asked Saravanamuttu and his friends to leave.
For the past six years, Israel Apartheid Week, held annually in March, has been a contentious event on the York campus. In a letter to the administration sent in December 2010, a contract faculty professor, Judith Cohen stated that Israel ‘Apartheid’ Week “has led to serious divisions among students – and, though perhaps less apparent, among staff and faculty as well.” The purpose of Dr. Cohen’s letter was to encourage York to promote respectful dialogue and academic integrity by changing the name of Israel ‘Apartheid’ Week to something more neutral and less biased. The V-P of Students, Robert Tiffin, responded that York has been promoting civil dialogue through “a number of initiatives, including Inclusion Day last October and the Committee for Campus Dialogue, chaired by Dr. David Leyton-Brown, which is working closely with the Centre for Human Rights to develop programming to promote civility and sensitivity.” While these efforts are good initiatives, it is unclear if they reach the students involved in Israel ‘Apartheid’ Week. In her letter Professor Cohen also mentioned that “there have been cases of verbal and even physical assaults on Jews on campus. In fact both Jewish and non-Jewish students have expressed concerns for their safety, as have some of my colleagues and some graduate students.” This fact was not addressed in VP Tiffin’s response. The existing discrimination against and fear among Jewish students on campus seems to be the elephant in the room.
As president of Christians United For Israel on Campus, I wrote a letter to the administration raising my concerns and also included statements from over a dozen students. In one statement, Afroza Mohammed, a 4th year student wrote that “as a neutral student, none of what happens during rallies and protests, especially during Israeli Apartheid Week, makes me feel like I am safe on campus or that York University is a tolerant and accepting university. Israel Apartheid Week makes me feel like York and the York communities are unable to, in a mature way, have a conversation about this conflict without leaving students feeling abused, hurt, unsafe and ignored.” Students from different backgrounds- South African, Sri Lankan, Hispanic, Israeli, Ghanaian, Christian, Jewish and secular– wrote similar statements. Students expressed feeling unsafe on campus; witnessing “bigotry, hate, ignorance and intolerance’ and feeling singled out and discriminated against. The question arises, how can students hold discussions about Middle-Eastern politics in a civil and respectful manner without the intimidation, hate speech and threat of violence that currently exists?
A verbal reassurance that York does not tolerate anti-Semitism, racism or speech that advocates hate is insufficient. A community member, a professor and several students’ experiences prove that these exist and are tolerated on campus already. Getting the York administration to acknowledge this reality and address it is the first step to creating any real change on campus.