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In Defence of Jewish and Israeli Studies in Canada

Willem Hart

Canadian Jews, as do all minority ethnic groups, possess the right to work together as an identifiable group to build and advance a community.

In an advanced multicultural democracy like Canada, one would imagine that such a right would never come under attack.

Yet, this is exactly the purpose of Montreal “activist” Yves Engler’s op-ed, “Millionaire Patrons of Jewish Studies in Canada More Interested in Pro-Israel Lobby Than Anti-Racism.” Engler, an advocate of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against “Jewish and white supremacy in the Middle East,” calls into question the intentions of Canadian Jewish benefactors of various post-secondary academic programs in Israeli and Jewish studies. After all, since Zionism is some evil, colonialist amorphous force of ethnic supremacy, how could denizens of the “Israel lobby” sponsor academic programs surrounding social justice?

This view is not only inherently the product of a fine crucible of prejudice and misinformation, but inherently calls into question the right of Jewish communal leaders to build Jewish community infrastructure. Engler takes aim at academic programs such as the Elizabeth and Tony Comper Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism at the University of Haifa in Israel, the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies McGill’s Jewish Studies department.

These departments and programs are not proponents of “racist ideology.” They are actually quite the opposite; anti-Jewish prejudice – irrational hatred towards Israel to be more specific – precipitates the creation of programs such as these.

Allow me to explain.

As a result of generations of community building, Jews in Canada enjoy a high degree of what sociologists call “institutional completeness.” As a sub-dominant minority population in Canada, the Jewish community, most pronounced in census metropolitan areas like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, have formed what could be described as a parallel pocket society.

To illustrate, consider that one could very well be born in a Jewish hospital, attend a Jewish nursery, day school, high school, play on a Jewish sports team, shop at food and clothing stores tailored to Jewish clientele, be involved with Jewish seniors groups, and be buried in a Jewish cemetery. From cradle to grave, literally, one could spend almost his or her entire life in the “Jewish bubble.”

And why is this? Well, it’s not due to some weird clannishness and contempt for mingling with non-Jews. There are, more or less, three general reasons:

  1. The market.Jewish retailers, butchers, tailors and morticians understand the needs of the Jewish consumer, and can market their knowledge of the halachic requirements of their goods and services.
  2. Continuity.Unsurprisingly, a key preoccupation of any ethnic group is to cultivate culture and society for the next generation. Hebrew schools, museums and community centres, for example, serve this purpose.
  3. Prejudice(Antisemitism). Post-secondary institutions, including some of the most prestigious in the world (Harvard, Yale, McGill, U of T),held quotas on the admittance of Jewish students – especially in graduate and professional studies admission. This transferred over to finding employment in various related job fields, and a history of “polite antisemitism” spurred the foundation of Jewish law firms and banks. “Jewish” hospitals were founded in response to institutional barriers on Jews practicing medicine.

Other sub-dominant minority groups in Canada exhibit similar parallel institutions. An Islamic bookstore (market), a Spanish language centre (continuity) or, historically, gay nightclubs (prejudice) would all be examples of these types of parallel social settings.

Today, prejudice against Jews is generally thought to be a non-issue. Jewish Canadians participate in all areas of commerce, do not face the historical numerus clausus that restricted their academic and professional mobility, and get elected to all levels of government. While Jews are still regular targets of hate crimes (see B’nai Brith’s Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents), “polite antisemitism” is not as pronounced.

However, polite anti-Zionism is a rampant problem in the post-secondary sector. Riots, toxic learning atmospheres, the shunning of Israeli academics, bullying in the classroom and intimidation are common experiences of pro-Israel students on campuses across North America and the world.

In justifying the creation of pro-Israel academic programs, one does not even need to make the case that the “Israel lobby” (a phrase for “Zionism” or “pro-Israel advocacy” employed by both ends of the political fringe) and anti-racism go hand in hand. The fact that advocating for the well-being of a people returning to their indigenous homeland (after thousands of years of exile at the hands of European conquerors) is a paragon of social justice work is actually quite irrelevant.

The Jewish community is merely reacting to a new form of polite antisemitism by carving out a place for a parallel institution free of such prejudice. Otherwise, Israel could conceivably only be studied through a “social justice” paradigm consistent with the motives of the BDS movement – a greater threat to academia than any of these Jewish studies departments.

These academic programs in Israeli studies simply challenge the dominance of anti-Zionism in “social justice” pedagogy and academic leadership. I see no reason why a McGill Jewish studies department should associate with a proponent of BDS or demonization of Israel, when proponents of such movement work to boycott those who do not.

Willem Hart is currently finishing up an undergraduate degree at York University and has been involved in Israel advocacy and education through Hasbara at York. He is also an alumni of the StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellowship.