Creating (and fighting) for a more heavenly campus

This Christmas Day, my family found ourselves in the Old City of Jerusalem, the historical intersection of the world’s three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although we are Jewish, we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see what Christmas was like at one of the religion’s holiest sites. On the way, we ran into a priest from France, who gave us directions to the church. As we parted, he left us with a blessing: “I will see you all again in Heaven. Not just in the real Heaven, but in the heavenly Jerusalem.” The experience that day was indeed close to heavenly, walking from such a holy Christian site, to the Kotel or Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism while hearing the muffled sound of the muezzin—the Muslim call to prayer—emanating from the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam.

The peace of that day led me to reflect that despite the friction and constant upheaval in this most coveted of lands, there was a feeling of an unlikely tolerance above it all. Yes, later that day, we read reports of an Ultra-Orthodox Jew fighting with an Armenian priest, and breaking his 16th-century cross; later, stories came out of conflict between Palestinians and soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces in East Jerusalem. From my perspective, however, that day was noticeably calm, and the tolerant words of the priest stuck with me.

One memory from before my trip kept re-entering my mind. It was the story of a fellow McGill student, Alex, who’d had an opposite experience—not in the Middle East, but in McGill’s “safe space.” Sitting in the Redpath cafeteria during the most recent flare-up of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Alex—wearing a kippa, or skullcap—said he was accosted by a group of students wearing black-and-white checkered keffiyehs, the symbol of the Palestinian resistance movement, who he had not provoked. One of the members of the group pointed to Alex’s kippa and then drew his finger across his throat, a universal symbol. Regardless of whether it was serious, Alex saw this as a death threat. According to Canada’s Criminal Code this was a crime, inspired by his religion. It was a hate crime. Like Arab and Muslim students who are unfairly targeted and branded as ‘terrorists’ due to baseless hatred and ignorance, Alex experienced something that we cannot accept.

It is particularly troubling that a hate crime occurred on our campus; and not only did no one do anything about it, no one knows about it. We don’t know about it because Alex did not know where to go, and did not think he could actually achieve a positive resolution or be treated fairly because he was on “the Israeli side.”

We cannot let events like this go unnoticed nor unmentioned. “We” here takes three separate meanings: I personally use the word “we” as a member of the campus media; a member of the Jewish community; and a member of the broader McGill community. When we see hate, we must stop it. When we experience hate, we must report it. And when we believe that something is fundamentally wrong, we must take action against it.

From a media perspective, we need to remember that fair and honest reporting does not involve pretending that all sides are right, and steering away from controversy. This case of anti-Semitism should have been reported, as should other acts of hate be they against women, homosexuals, people of other races, or anyone else. If students are not forthcoming, as in this case, it is our job to find these stories, to write them down, and to make them known. If one student like Alex cannot tell his or her story to every student at McGill, a student journalist can.

From a Jewish perspective, “we” as a community must re-find our voice. For decades, Jewish students were known as activists who took on causes they believed were right and made a difference. The movement to help Soviet Jewry escape from the galvanized Jews on campus was successful. Jewish leaders marched with the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s. Today, many of us shy away from controversy, and we let things slide, rather than take up a fight that might be difficult. Apathy has never been part of our culture. This includes the fight against anti-Semitism, but our values go beyond our own people. “We” must pursue justice and prevent hate not just against our own people, but wherever it takes place in the world.

Finally, from a campus perspective, “we” not only need to be more tolerant, but we also need to be more accommodating of everyone who experiences hate and discrimination, on all sides of a given issue or conflict, despite what the media decides to report. Alex did not know where to turn to find help, he felt like he was alone. Students should know that there is a welcoming, comforting place to tell their stories regardless of their political views. The equity complaints process and resources such as the McGill Counselling Service and the Legal Information Clinic (just to name a few) need to be better publicized so as to be used by anyone who needs help. Based on the prevailing campus rhetoric on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Alex felt that he would not have received fair  treatment. If we claim that McGill is a safe space where everyone is heard, we cannot apply a double standard. Picking and choosing is not justice.

Regardless of which category you fall into, as you return to class this semester, ask yourself if you are as tolerant as you think you are. Ask what you do to promote and preserve justice. Take up a cause that you believe is right and fight for it. Others may disagree with you, but do not be deterred. When we all do that, our campus will be as peaceful as the visions of the French priest in Jerusalem on Christmas Day. Let’s make that happen in 2013.


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