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A Lesson for Jewish Students

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Robin Grossman 

June 23, 2017

During my first year of post-secondary education at York University, I enrolled in courses that discussed colonialism and racism, where most of my peers were visible minorities and victims of racism. Yet, even though I’m part of a minority group myself, I always felt like the odd one out. What was my place in those courses? Why was I always the only Jew in class, and what would happen if I started sharing my experiences as a Jew?

I had never been involved in any Jewish organization on campus and, considering York’s antisemitism problem, spent many years actually hiding my Jewish identity. In my third year, when I decided to major in Human Rights and Equity Studies and minor in Multicultural and Indigenous Studies, I was forced to share my little Jewish secret after my professor assigned a storytelling project for students to share tales of their families immigrating to Canada. The goal was to recognize what it meant for Canadians to live on lands that were taken from Native peoples.

I’ll be frank: I was unable to sleep for two nights before sharing my story, scared of speaking openly about my Jewishness with my classmates. I even avoided wearing Judaic jewelry to school. Would my professors, many of whom are on the Faculty for Palestine, accept me knowing that I was Jewish?

In my case, I was never discriminated against for being Jewish at York University, and I feel lucky to be able to say that as I know many people who experienced antisemitism on campus. In my classmate’s first year, food was thrown at him in the student centre for wearing a shirt with Hebrew text on it. When a friend of mine was running to represent the Faculty of Education during student elections, a student told her not to vote for the “dirty Zionists.” Another friend of mine was told to take off her Magen David necklace while walking around campus. She hasn’t worn it to campus since.        

In 2016, at the age of 20, I finally visited Israel for the first time on a CIE Birthright Israel trip. Our trip leader would often tell us how, as the director for Hillel York, she was ready to defend Israel in any situation. And, while I enjoyed my time in Israel, I never felt that I was able to do the same, and was often mad at myself for it.

As a Jewish person, feeling connected to the land of Israel yet being unable to defend it, I avoided the situation all together. I returned to York the following semester, remained uninvolved in Jewish organizations on campus, and continued to feel voided of my education about Israel. I did, however, feel the need to return to Israel the following summer, and enroll in more courses that would further my Jewish education. And so I did.

I want to mention that I don’t feel that my story as a Jew on campus is unique. Many other Jewish students on campus who remain uninvolved in Jewish life on campus can relate to the feeling of letting down Israel by not completely understanding the situation going on there, and the feeling of not wanting your friends to know that you come from a Jewish family. It’s an unsettling feeling and one that’s tough to comprehend. 

Two weeks ago, I returned from my most recent trip to Israel on the Aish Jerusalem Fellowships. This time, I went out on my own, hoping to extract all the information I could about Israel and various Jewish topics.

This time, there were a few things that I learnt that had previously been questionable to me, and many things that made sense and even changed my life.

Here I am, three weeks home from Israel and working at B’nai Brith Canada as a summer intern, and I could not be prouder to be Jewish. Coming into this program, I was not entirely sure how Israel stood in relation to the Palestinian Territories or Palestinian people. I had heard about B’nai Brith’s campaign in reaffirming the Jewish people as indigenous to the land of Israel prior to my trip, so I made sure to pay special attention to this idea that I was slightly skeptical of. Many of the things I learned in Israel were factual – that there is both indisputable archaeological and biological evidence that ties Jewish people to the land, that Jews have always lived on that land, that Israel is the eighth-most powerful country in the world and the ninety-eighth most populated, and that many Israeli organizations defend all Israeli civilians, including Muslims, Catholics, Christians, Jews, members of the LGBTQ community, and others.

During my trip, I wondered what my professors at York would say about Jews having indigenous rights to Israel, given that some of them are indigenous scholars who support the Palestinian claim to the land of Israel. So much of what I had learnt in school has been about the continuing colonization of indigenous lands here in Canada, but the sections on antisemitism have been limited, and have no mention of Israel.

Each year in my Human Rights and Equity Studies courses, there’d be one class at the most that mentions antisemitism, despite it being the leading form of discrimination in Canada for years. Working for B’nai Brith has given me hope that through the continuing efforts of tackling antisemitic incidents at its core, antisemitism will become a declining trend one day. Through the League for Human Rights, B’nai Brith’s advocacy arm, and through vehicles such as the 24/7 Anti-Hate Hotline, B’nai Brith combats racism, antisemitism and hatred through offering several valuable resources to our community every single day. 

I am more than proud to be involved in my Jewish community here in Toronto, to finally have learnt how and why to stand behind Israel. To have a job at B’nai Brith, where I can actively fight antisemitism and promote the wellbeing of the Canadian Jewish community, is fulfilling for me in so many different ways. After so many years of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial (considering that it was significantly on the rise in 2016) the best way to fight back is to educate yourself on the facts surrounding Israel and Judaism, and to be proud and willing to share it.

I know now that even on hostile climates such as York, Jewish students must embrace our identity, our thousands-year-old relationship to the land of Israel, and our heritage. Don't shy away from explaining why the "Palestinian Roots" mural in the student centre is anti-Israel, and don't shy away from explaining why Israel, the only democratic nation in the Middle East, most certainly has a right to exist.

Robin Grossman is the Program Development Researcher at B'nai Brith Canada and a student at York University.

Published : Jun 23, 2017

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