December 4, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in the Forward.
If you’re a close follower of the issues Jewish students face on campus, you could be forgiven for feeling a bit of fatigue after a number of shocking anti-Semitic incidents occurred on college campuses in Canada last month. At the University of Toronto, controversy ensued after the graduate student union initially refused to support a campaign by the local Hillel to expand kosher food options. And York University made headlines when pro-Palestinian students violently interrupted an event featuring speeches by IDF reservists. The most recent event took place at McGill University in Montreal: When several student leaders accepted an invitation to travel to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this winter on a trip organized by Hillel Montreal, McGill’s student government passed a motion condemning Jordyn Wright, a Jewish student leader, for breaching the conflict-of-interest policy, but said absolutely nothing about Andrew Chase, a fellow student leader who is not Jewish, who also planned to go on the trip.
These incidents join a growing list of anti-Semitic episodes targeting Jewish students at institutions of higher education. But even worse, the episode at McGill shows how students aren’t just barring attachment to Israel; they are barring learning about it at all, for the simple reason that exposure to Israel inevitably means abandoning the good vs. evil narrative that prevails in progressive spaces.
There are two deeply troubling things at play in the McGill incident. First, a recognized university body apparently made the decision to apply a completely different standard to a Jewish student than the one it applies to non-Jewish ones. Why are Jewish student leaders less trustworthy? It’s impossible to know if the SSMU members who called for Wright’s removal intended to be anti-Semitic, but this presumption of dual loyalty, of a Jewish inability to carry out official duties because Jews are presumed to harbor a deeper, secret allegiance to Israel over their home countries, is anti-Semitism, plain and simple.
Secondly, this incident illustrates how the anti-Israel ideologues who have seized control of student government discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not want students to learn about Israel or the Palestinian Authority. Ignorance suits them, because the more a student — or a university administrator, or a federal legislator, or a journalist, etc. — knows about Israel, the less likely they are to cast the conflict as a morality play, a simple choice between big, bad Israel and the poor, piteous Palestinians.
Professor Ron E. Hassner, chair of Israel Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, recently conducted a survey of 230 Berkeley undergraduate students on their feelings about various conflicts in the Middle East. 43% said that they “care deeply” about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Shockingly, 75% of those students could not locate the West Bank and Gaza on a map. Additionally, 84% of them didn’t know in which decade the Six-Day War (and the beginning of the occupation about which they are so concerned) took place. And only 17% knew that the population of Israel was between 8 and 12 million people, with the rest guessing that Israel was the home of as few as 100,000 people, or as many as 150 million!
Professor Hassner concluded that proper education on this issue “requires students that are unwilling to permit their political passions to get in the way of a good education.” But the situation is actually quite a bit worse than that: Anti-Israel activists, uninformed though they may be, seek to bar students at McGill and other universities from informing themselves, while simultaneously demanding that students vote on BDS resolutions.
I’m powerfully reminded of Lauren Rogers, a non-Jewish member of UCLA’s student government, who traveled to Israel and the West Bank in 2014 on an educational trip sponsored by my organization, American Jewish Committee, and then cast an informed vote against BDS the following semester. She was subsequently accused of a conflict of interest, tried by the UCLA student judicial board, and bullied and threatened to the point that she needed security to accompany her around campus.
In California in 2014 and Quebec in 2019, the underlying problem is the same. On any other issue — climate change or racial discrimination, for example — students would doubtless agree that education is a crucial first step toward responsible legislative action, whether at the student government level, or in Congress. But anti-Israel actors prefer that the electorate be as ill-informed as possible when considering measures targeting Israel and its supporters. That makes it much easier to spread malicious lies about democratic Israel and champion the Palestinians as somehow a progressive cause.
I have lived in Israel, and traveled extensively in the West Bank, including spending significant time in Ramallah and Bethlehem, and touring other Palestinian areas. I also lead an annual AJC-sponsored delegation of university presidents to Israel, and meetings in Ramallah are always on our itinerary (not to mention several meetings intended to give participants an appreciation for the Israeli Arab experience). We do not pretend to be neutral on Israel, but are committed to ensuring that our trips paint a full, complex picture of all of the many varied colors and textures of Israeli society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last week’s vote at McGill and the broader culture of contemptuous know-nothingness and condemning engagement with Israel is no great threat to Israel. The country’s economy hasn’t seen any ill-effects as a result of BDS and will survive the scattered protests on campus. No, the real victim of this enforced ignorance are the students themselves and the state of higher education in North America.
When illiteracy becomes a virtue, and students who seek to learn are ostracized and shamed, something is very wrong.
Seffi Kogen is the American Jewish Committee Global Director of Young Leadership.