Over the winter break, I was excited to talk with my family and friends about McGill, but defending the university’s name against accusations of antisemitism was not what I had in mind. Instead of sitting down to the ordinary Shabbat dinner with loved ones, I stumbled into defending a McGill on trial, and I did my best as its attorney: But, it seemed like the case was already closed. The Times of Israel had already published a piece lamenting an “antisemitic” Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) resolution, while Bari Weiss, New York Times Opinion Staff Editor, mentioned the incident in a column about the rise of worldwide antisemitism.
As a Jewish student representative to SSMU, seeing the issue so misrepresented in the press was jarring to say the least. Instead of a reasoned debate, the dinner table conversation quickly turned into a loud, heated dispute, as my explanations of the nuances of McGill student governance were drowned in a flood of misunderstanding facilitated by journalistic malpractice. The distinction I sought to make to those seated around the table is this: Not everything that is anti-Israel is antisemitic, and the issue is far too complicated to be reduced to “antisemitism” or even anti-Israel bias. Moreover, conflating the two is both damaging to the term “antisemitism” itself and insulting to Jewish people who are critical of Israel and its current leadership.
The issue at hand is an offer to apply for an all-expenses paid trip to Israel and Palestine, which was pitched by Hillel Montreal to SSMU executives, directors, and other “student leaders.” Hillel extended the invitation through a letter that is worthy of scrutiny, according to student representatives, because it could indicate that the trip presents a conflict of interest. Although SSMU has been plagued by issues that have led to accusations of antisemitism or anti-Israel bias in the past, this situation is hardly identical to the 2017 incident of a councilor being threatened with impeachment for being “pro-Israel.” This time, The McGill Daily exposed councillors who had accepted the invitation, problematizing the unclear motives behind the trip. Debate over the issue culminated in a Nov. 28 resolution to condemn the trip as a conflict of interest for student leaders. The meeting concluded that those concerned should either resign or back away from the trip, lest they will face impeachment. While most councillors and directors renounced their initial acceptances before the resolution was debated, Jordyn Wright, the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) representative to the SSMU Legislative Council, refused to turn down the offer.
“The distinction I sought to make to those seated around the table is this: Not everything that is anti-Israel is antisemitic, and the issue is far too complicated to be reduced to “antisemitism” or even anti-Israel bias.”
Weiss wrote that SSMU resolved to remove Wright over the trip even though “another student government leader is also going,” concluding that “apparently because that student is not a Jew, no resignation was required.” What Weiss failed to acknowledge is that some councilors argued that, as a director, Wright represents the Legislative Council on the Board of Directors (BoD): Had the resolution to condemn the trip as a conflict of interest passed without requiring her to resign, she would have been in defiance of the Legislative Council at large. The other councillor is not on the BoD, and was not asked to resign because councilors felt that his actions would not have affected further decision making on SSMU. And Wright was hardly “singled out” for being Jewish, considering that Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) representative, who is also a member of the BoD, was also named in the resolution until he backed away from the trip. Moreover, he and other non-Jewish councilors going on the trip were asked by the Social Work representative to resign during a Nov. 14 meeting because the Councillor perceived the trip as a conflict of interest. Like Weiss, the Times of Israel failed to account for the existence of these circumstances when they quoted Wright, labelling the resolution as “antisemitic”. Without acknowledging these key details, millions of readers of these media outlets, and others that reported on the issue, will conclude that McGill is an antisemitic university, and that impression will be difficult to dislodge. This could cause some parents to think twice about sending their children here, and potential donors might be deterred.
Students can reasonably question whether or not SSMU is making a fuss over seemingly needless provisions in its governing documents, but to call the resolution “antisemitic” requires more evidence than the opinion of the councilor whose position (and potential free trip to Israel) is jeopardized in the situation. Labels like “antisemitic” must be applied carefully. Jewish people especially must take every step necessary to safeguard the integrity of that condemnation, by ensuring that when it is levied, it is with the utmost gravity and conviction in its justification. The world is becoming increasingly unsafe for Jewish people, but the censure of “antisemitic” loses weight when it is applied carelessly and incorrectly. Calling McGill antisemitic also tarnishes the university’s reputation, which, in turn, devalues every McGill student’s degree. It is deeply troubling that the media has been able to shape public opinion on this matter without having examined the situation thoroughly. Words are powerful, and in the current political climate, where the value of truth has been questioned by those in power and the internet is rife with fake news, it is imperative that the power of terms like “antisemitic” not be reduced through misuse.