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Anti-Semitism hot-bed

Problems grow for Jews at York University.

After the swell of controversy at Toronto's York University recently, on the heels of the conference called Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace on June 22-24, two anti-Semitic incidents occurred within a week.

Campus administrators reported that anti-Semitic literature was found in a bathroom of York's Scott Library on July 2. As well, Sammy Katz, Canadian campus coordinator of Hasbara Fellowships, added that there were reports of a one-foot swastika etching discovered in another school restroom on the same day. "Stuff like this happens every day at York," he lamented.

A press release was issued on July 6 by the York Federation of Students, condemning hate-filled acts in light of the July 2 incident on campus.

"We understand that York has a great number of Jewish constituents and we are greatly concerned. We oppose all forms of racism and sexism," said Krisna Saravanamuttu, president of the York Federation of Students, in an interview with the Independent. The York Federation of Students represents 49,000 undergraduate students at York University.

Saravanamuttu said the recent incidents are currently under investigation, though he could not elaborate any further on what has been found. "Violent acts of hatred such as these are an affront to student rights on campus and must be condemned," he stressed.

To publicize an earlier incident, Katz recently placed on YouTube a filmed segment of a protester at an anti-Israel demonstration at York's Vari Hall, saying, "F*** the Jews" repeatedly as a chant. When confronted by Katz, it was revealed that the protester was not enrolled as a student at York.

Katz then complained to the school's administration and security, but said such complaints fall on deaf ears and thus become a futile exercise. Security and police generally respond too late, or are mired in the school's red tape of protocols on how to deal with hate speech, Katz added.

He emphasized the importance of Jewish students being pro-active on campus to ensure future problems are minimized. "We do not want to always be reacting, looking over our shoulder to see what the other side is doing."

Meir Weinstein, director of the Jewish Defence League (JDL) of Canada said that the culmination of hate on campus over the course of the past few years should be enough of a message to pro-Israel Jewish students to enrol elsewhere and for Jewish donors to redirect their philanthropy.

"Find another university. I think it's repulsive that Jews give money to York. We looked at the board of the university. Many of them are high-profile people in the Jewish community. At the very least, they need to attach major strings to their contributions."

When the anti-Israel conference was being held, he encouraged his group, as well as others in the vicinity, to join the protest he organized at the gates of the university.

"It was to expose and confront the message of the conference, and unify the Jewish community against the conference," he said. "When you do nothing, they just get stronger. Our primary mandate is to expose and confront, and shine a magnifying glass on it so everyone can see it. You then prevent it from spreading." Nearly every major Jewish organization has issued statements against the conference since October, he added.

Few of the 50 conference speakers had academic or extensive scholarly experience teaching or writing about the conflicts in the Middle East. There was no representation from the centre-left or centre-right, reports said. Organizers carefully screened their attendees before accepting them, and some observers have suspected those who did not agree completely with their extremist positions were not welcomed.

The anti-Israel conference was co-sponsored by Queen's University and is an official U50 initiative, part of York University's 50th anniversary celebrations. Many reports have said that those attendees and speakers who offered ideas with the slightest of perceived pro-Israel tilt were ridiculed, shouted over and muffled by those in the conference room.

The conference's advisory committee included Ali Abunimah, a fellow at the Palestine Centre in Washington, D.C. He is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, an online anti-Israel publication. According to the United Jewish Appeal's communiqué, Abunimah's group frequently condones Palestinian terrorism, using the euphemism of "resistance," and terms like "apartheid" and "racist" in reference to Israel.

"The advisory board are 90 percent those that call for a boycott of Israel on a lot of different levels or don't acknowledge Israel's right to exist or the historical rights of the Jewish people," said Weinstein.

Along with the JDL, certain pro-Israel campus groups joined to protest over the course of three days, including Hasbara at York, Hasbara Fellowships, the JDL and the Canadian Centre for Israel Activism. (Hasbara Fellowships, a program run by Aish International, educates and trains university students to be pro-Israel activists on their campuses.)

Weinstein noticed, however, a marked absence of the established Jewish student campus group, Hillel. In Ontario, he claimed, "Leadership of Hillel is a failure. The Jewish students are not a failure. They have ideals. They want to express themselves. But they aren't given the opportunity. It's disappointing that the students have to face this establishment. The students want to take a stand."

Naomi Samuel, vice-president of communications at Hasbara, concurred. "How can you not want to get involved on campus?" Entering her second year at York, she has noticed the school environment growing increasingly hostile.

"In the past year, it has not gotten any easier for Jewish students. We can't allow York to be a hotbed for anti-Semitism. Jewish students are ostracized, tormented just for wearing yarmulkes or identifying themselves outwardly as Jewish," she said. "It's really scary to walk around these halls, and impossible for anyone not here to know what it's like on campus."

Dave Gordon is a freelance writer in Toronto. His website is davegordonwrites.com.

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