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Monday, September 1, 2014

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Encountering intimidation on campus

Tags: Campus Comment
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Michelle Bitron

As a freelance journalist, I have been writing about topics related to Israel and Judaism for nearly two years without reproach from readers. But when an article I originally wrote for The CJN was published in Ryerson University’s campus newspaper, the Ryersonian, readers responded with venom.

On Sept. 21, the Ryersonian published my story – about my time volunteering with the Israel Defence Forces – in its Voices section, a page reserved for students writing from a personal perspective.

I revised the piece “Sar-el: My Way To Thank Israel’s Soldiers” for the campus paper, where it was published under the headline “From Beaches to Bunkers: Volunteering with the IDF.” I treaded carefully when making changes, avoiding political comment in anticipation of a less-than-receptive audience. My editors published what I gave them.

When I told my parents I had rewritten the story for my campus paper, they were concerned about the response I would get. I shrugged off their worries, sure that they were overreacting.

Boy, was I wrong. I was just about to learn the meaning of overreacting.

Within a day of the article coming out, my managing editor told me a very upset Palestinian student had contacted her and was planning to write me a letter. Days later, that student self-published her letter online and spread the link through Facebook.

Referring to a line in my article that spoke about my experience packing clothing for my trip, the student wrote, “Is there really any colour that would go well with blood splatter?” She accused me of having silenced the Palestinian people and their cause, and went on to tell her parents’ story as refugees fleeing in 1948.

I was left wondering when being a Zionist became tantamount to being anti-Palestinian and trying to figure out where the blood-splattered uniforms she spoke of fit into my story of a summer spent fixing camouflage netting on a base in the north of Israel.

I also wondered if once, while writing her parents’ story, she had considered the possibility that my family, too, was kicked out from their home, forced to leave Iraq and sent fleeing to the one safe house for Jewish people at the time: Israel.

Thinking the worst was over, I returned to the school’s newsroom on Monday, only to receive another hateful letter, this time from a campus group called Students Against Racism. They accused me of “glorifying war and occupation based on racist ideologies and beliefs,” and through that “glorifying racism itself.”

The irony was almost too great to be believed. Here I was, a member of one of the smallest minority groups in the world, expressing support for the one tiny Jewish state that struggles to exist, and being called racist for it. What then, I wondered, would Students Against Racism call a campus environment where a Jewish student and Israeli citizen could not openly express a connection to her home country without being viciously and unfairly criticized for it?

Though this letter was intended as a letter to the editor, the instructor who managed the paper chose, rightly, not to publish it, as not a single point the group made addressed my article directly, but rather promoted a political agenda.

Instead, a third and final letter the Ryersonian received was published. It was from Students for Palestinian Human Rights. Though it was the least hateful and most relevant of the letters, it was still used as a platform to spread political propaganda about the Mideast conflict, calling the IDF systematically racist. Nonetheless, as a journalist, I respect the importance of a free and balanced press, and am glad that the least inflammatory of the upset students were able to express their viewpoint.

Unlike what was suggested by the letter-writers, I do believe open discourse is an important route toward coexistence and peace. However, until this kind of intimidation on campus stops, open discourse hardly stands a chance. 

 

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