Much has been said and written about UMSU’s historic decision to strip Students Against Israel Apartheid (SAIA) of its student group status and ban it from using UMSU spaces.
The Ottawa Citizen wrote that UMSU showed “courage and moral integrity in opposing ignorance and intolerance.” On the other hand, many of the comments posted to UMSU’s facebook page accused UMSU of being anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim, and even anti-Semitic.
To understand why a majority of council voted for a resolution banning SAIA from UMSU spaces, it’s important to know that SAIA is part of an international network that delegitimizes Israel and targets its supporters as racists.
The age-old fight over Israel’s legitimacy has centered on “Zionism.”
The Jews who founded Israel saw themselves as a “people” or a “nation” whose future depended on having a state of their own, a safe haven from their enemies and a place where Jewish culture could be openly practiced.
The United Nations endorsed the “Zionist” vision on Nov. 29, 1947, authorizing the creation of a “Jewish state” living alongside an “Arab state” in Palestine.
Israel’s enemies, and SAIA, call that vision racist.
Members of the movement to delegitimize Israel often twist facts and invent stories in order to portray Israel, the only real democracy in the Middle East, as a racist enterprise. Israel is also the only country in the area to grant human rights to all of its citizens.
At the turn of the millennium, the global movement to delegitimize Israel started comparing it to the apartheid regime in South Africa – the most racist government in the second half of the 20th century.
Does that sound familiar? Just change the name South Africa to Israel, draw some bigger noses on the posters and call for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” and presto: you have “Israel Apartheid” and Students Against Israel Apartheid.
There was only one problem with SAIA’s strategy.
The freedom of Israel-detractors to call Israel and its supporters “racist” on campus is limited by the UMSU policy that protects students from “harassment,” “discrimination,” and “behaviour that is likely to undermine [their] dignity [and] self-esteem,” the same rules that protect other vulnerable groups like LGBTTQ*s, disabled students, women, and Aboriginals.
Disrespectful speech is prohibited on campus and in the workplace. These rules don’t just ban physical intimidation and hate speech; the threshold is set much lower on campus because students who are enrolled at the U of M need a safe space to learn.
The truth is that students, Jews and non-Jews alike, who are called racists feel scared, and not just during Israel Apartheid Week.
It’s simply not safe to be labelled a racist on campus, as students at York and Concordia, among others, have found out.
The question that UMSU councillors faced, therefore, was a moral one – are supporters of Israel entitled to the same protections as other vulnerable groups? The majority of UMSU Council believed that they were, and that SAIA was undermining the dignity and self-esteem of students on campus.
The council didn’t have to say that SAIA was anti-Semitic, but Canada has endorsed a declaration signed by governments around the world that says: “Claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is anti-Semitic.
And that’s exactly what SAIA claims.
When Israel-detractors are enraged (as they were after the motion was passed), they find it hard to distinguish between Zionists and Jews. More than one post on the UMSU Facebook group tied the UMSU resolution to the Holocaust and concentration camps.
Now why would that be if all they’re talking about is Israel?
I’m sure that many, if not all members of SAIA, are well-meaning students who want to advance peace and justice in the Middle East. In fact, these students have not been deprived of their right to speak out against injustice, as long as they do so within UMSU policies intended to protect students on campus.
I would like to join others on campus in forming a dialogue to learn more about the Arab-Israeli conflict in a respectful manner, based on trust and understanding.
The ultimate goal is peace and justice, both in the Middle East and right here at home.
Who will join me?
Elements of this article previously appeared in the Jewish Post and News.