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Friday, November 28, 2014

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We need stronger faculty voice

Tags: Columnists Lawrence Hart
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When considering what most causes a chilled academic environment for Jewish students and faculty on university campuses, the slur that equates Israel with apartheid – ritualized each March during so-called “Israeli apartheid week” (IAW) – ranks highly. But the vernacular that seeks to demonize and delegitimize Israel is far from limited to IAW. It also finds expression in a variety of other programs that pollute our campuses throughout the school year. And of added concern is the evident hijacking of class time when anti-Israel prejudices become embedded, often insidiously, into curricular content.

The extent to which Jewish students are equipped, and willing, to stand up against such abuses varies widely. In some instances non-engagement is the preferred strategy. At other times, advocacy or measured confrontation is considered appropriate. Much depends on the circumstances.

What is obvious, nonetheless, is that Jewish campus groups are subjected constantly to a toxic atmosphere of intimidation by hostile and increasingly emboldened anti-Israel agitators who have quickly learned how to exploit academic freedoms to promote their hateful agendas.  Within Canada, the national Hillel organization and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’s university outreach committee (UOC) are meant to provide the guidance and resources to counter anti-Israel, or more broadly anti-Jewish, incidents on our campuses, which is all well and good. Students are aware of this and usually embrace it.

However, what is missing on most campuses is a pro-active and dedicated faculty structure that ought to be actively promoting Israel, countering the delegitimizers, and assisting students when they feel threatened. Yes, there is a UOC-directed faculty organization, namely Canadian Academics for Peace (CAP), that has representation on several campuses across the country, but there has been only limited success in attracting more faculty members to get involved with it.

For the most part, we still have much of what we’ve had before, a mostly ad hoc arrangement where individual professors on particular campuses take a stand in times of crises or make themselves available to students only when required.

This is not the case at Hamilton’s McMaster University, where a Jewish Faculty Association (JFA) has been active for the past four years. With the principal objectives of supporting Jewish students and promoting Israel on campus, the JFA has developed strong, trusting, and enduring relationships with successive leaderships of McMaster’s Jewish Student Association (JSA) and its Israel on Campus affiliate.

Student leaders and their JSA director (and also the chair of UJA Federation of Hamilton’s campus services committee) meet regularly with the JFA executive. Most campus programming on Israel is collaborative, with outreach from campus to community that has resulted in highly successful and extraordinarily well-attended events. Demonstrating student-faculty unity has also been very effective in dealings with the university administration, especially on issues as contentious as IAW.

Different campuses have different priorities, and Jewish faculty members need to position themselves accordingly. The McMaster model can be easily emulated, and there may be others that are similarly successful. But what is abundantly clear is that as the aggressive and egregious attacks on Israel and its supporters escalate on our campuses year by year, there needs to be a more cohesive, resolute and powerful voice from Jewish faculty

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