The struggle over Israel in the Jewish community is heating up in Winnipeg, Canada. David Barnard, the President of the University of Manitoba — the city’s largest university — has been publicly un-invited to speak at one of the larger shuls in the city, Shaarey Zedek. The president was to have spoken at an interfaith service during Yom HaShoah.
He was uninvited, according to Ian Staniloff, the synagogue’s executive director, because he had allowed Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) to go ahead on the university campus. “Our board and congregation and community leaders felt it completely inappropriate that he take part,” said Staniloff, “because it’s visceral and personal and such a solemn occasion for us. We were more concerned in the perception that by having him here we’re basically endorsing him as an individual who would be representative of the community in speaking about this.” What an extremely disappointing decision.
As is often the case with these things, politics and legal maneuverings preceded IAW. It appears that the Student Union removed an organization promoting IAW, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, from official university status. Barnard did not override that decision, but he allowed an outside group to host IAW events on campus because, we are told, a legal opinion noted that preventing IAW from taking place would violate Manitoba’s human rights code.
I grew up in Winnipeg, and I watched it shift rightward in the aftermath of the Second Intifada. The image of a Palestinian rioter holding up his hands covered in the blood of two Israeli reserve soldiers whose bodies were horrifically mutilated was burned in our individual minds and our collective memory. Our community became angry, afraid, frustrated — and intolerant.
But if I thought that intolerance had diminished in the intervening years, I was wrong. To be fair, IAW is a difficult period for many. Its purpose is to demonstrate that Israel practices apartheid against Palestinians under its control, and to promote the BDS movement as a way to end these policies. As I’ve argued before, inherent to the BDS movement is the goal of ending Israel as an independent, Jewish-majority state. IAW, on this account, contributes to the delegitimization of Israel — a fully accepted member of the international system — and promotes an uncomfortable atmosphere for Jewish and non-Jewish students on campus. This is especially so at a time when anti-Semitic attacks have risen in parts of the world.
Still, the decision to un-invite the president of the University of Manitoba was a mistake. It hinders close ties with municipal and national organizations by predicating those ties on agreement of a single interpretation of events, treats synagogue congregants like children who need protecting from inappropriate words, and isolates community members from broader events in Israel, in the Middle East, and on campuses. All this while Barnard wasn’t even going to speak about any of these issues — he was to have read from a specially prepared document serving as the voice of a Holocaust survivor.
Coming in the same period as the rejection of J Street from membership in the Conference of Presidents — what is supposed to be a consensus umbrella organization for major American Jewish groups — one has to wonder what kind of community our representative institutions plan for us. Intolerance and exclusion may be rising over tolerance and inclusion.
We in the American and Canadian Jewish communities have difficult questions to consider. Changes in the social and religious make-up of our communities, in our connections to Israel, in Israel itself, and in our advocacy regarding Israel have been building for some time. While it’s natural that Israelis can more easily say things about their country and its behavior that people in other countries can’t, we need to address these questions in order to strengthen ourselves and our relationship to Israel. Isolating ourselves from the broader community and policing discourse and ideas — even when they aren’t about Israel — will have the opposite effect and weaken us.