How Pride Beat Hate in Montreal

By Gil Troy

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.
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Summer is ending and students are returning to campus. Many Jewish students, however, will be returning not only to seminars and syllabi, but also to the anti-Israel protests and propaganda that have plagued many North American campuses since the Palestinians launched their intifada in the fall of 2000.

Montreal’s Concordia University, in particular, has become infamous as a center of unreason and discord. The situation at “Gaza U.” has been one of unrelenting hostility to Zionism — and often Jews. Faculty members demonstrate the casual bigotry of the politically correct, injecting anti-Israel remarks into lectures unrelated to the Middle East and dismissing Jewish nationalism by referring to the Jewish “people” in quotation marks. Radical students, professing to build what former Concordia Student Union leaders called “a community that is anti-racist, anti-patriarchal… and pro-queer” overlook the fanatic nationalism, sexism and homophobia of the Palestinian Authority and the broader Islamicist movement. Palestinian activists sully Concordia’s name by intimidating Jewish students, harassing Hillel canvassers and importing a culture of threats and violence. These abuses culminated last fall in the September 9 riot that prevented former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking, followed by the Chanukah-time ejection of Hillel from the student government.

Clearly, Concordia University functions as an unhappy harbinger of what could happen on any campus where antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism festers. Even when Palestinian activists were not rioting — punching professors and kicking Holocaust survivors on that awful day — even when the anarchist-run student government was not stigmatizing Hillel, too many Jewish students felt scared at Concordia, a shocking failure for a modern university.

Fortunately, this tale has a less known but happier twist. Finally, Jewish students, the Jewish community and the broader community of Concordia students belatedly mobilized last spring. This academic year begins with a sense of hope — and relative calm. Concordia now offers a model for how to respond to the epidemic of anti-Zionist, antisemitic bigotry afflicting too many of the West’s most progressive circles.

Last year, three important things occurred. For starters, Jewish students became better organized and more aggressive. Although a core group had been active for years, the September 9 riot galvanized many marginally involved students. When the student union attacked in December, Hillel struck back, launching an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the student government and its officers. As Israel, the United States and others have had to relearn these last few years, politeness and passivity in the face of aggression invites more attacks. The Hillel counteroffensive changed the campus dynamics, empowering the Jews and cowing the bullies.

The Montreal Jewish community backed many of these efforts generously. Legal expertise, public relations advice and, most important of all, moral support bolstered the embattled Jewish students.

At the same time, the pro-Palestinian hooliganism upset many non-Jewish students, who resented the chaos and worried about their university’s reputation. Two years ago, the student union published a calendar filled with anti-Israel and anti-corporate ravings. Business and engineering students anxious about on-campus recruitment then mobilized. This time a broader coalition of students who believed that a student government does not need a foreign policy but does need to represent student concerns ran a slate in last spring’s student government elections — and won, thanks to a higher than normal turnout by fed-up students. Zionists, especially in Canada, have failed to build many pro-Israel coalitions beyond the Jewish community, or even articulate a vision that associates support for Israel with support for democracy, civility, liberty and non-Jews’ self-interest, making this achievement all the more valuable.

Most encouraging of all, Jewish activists at Concordia and throughout Montreal refused to despair. For years now in Montreal, fueled by a happy combination of the Birthright Israel buzz, the broader Jewish identity agenda and superb communal leadership, many young Jews have been celebrating Israel, Zionism and Judaism, not just manning the barricades.

Typical of this focus on identity building was the way the community responded after the riot. Borrowing the modern Israeli ritual of hakafot shneyot, a second round of Torah-parading after Simchat Torah ends, when music can be played and people can travel, the president of Montreal Hillel, Ariela Cotler, proposed a post-Simchat Torah march from Concordia to McGill University to reclaim the streets for Jewish students. The Concordia administration had foolishly banned all Middle East-related extra-curricular activities, so the hakafot were planned beyond Concordia’s boundaries. The Montreal police, however, refused to permit such a parade at night — and instead offered a downtown square.

It was a marvelous redirection. When Simchat Torah ended, between 2,000 and 3,000 Montrealers — in a Jewish community of only 100,000 — transcended holiday burnout and descended on downtown Montreal. They were young and old, religious and secular. Rather than marching angrily, we sang and danced around the Torah scrolls, deep into the night. That celebration, that affirmation of Jewish unity, Jewish values, Jewish traditions, demonstrated peace, power and pride, while uplifting our souls.

As a new year begins on campus that is the model to mass-produce. Even as we mobilize politically, even as we react, we need to celebrate Israel, embrace Zionism, delight in Judaism, build coalitions and nurture our community. That is the recipe for internal cohesion, external strength and individual satisfaction and salvation that the Jewish world needs, on campus — and elsewhere.

The second printing of Gil Troy’s latest book, “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today” (Bronfman Jewish Education Centre), was recently released.

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