I’d like to, as a Jewish student, address some of the narratives that have emerged on this campus in the past few weeks. I hope that the following can serve to provide a healthier context for future discussion.
I’ve been a student at McMaster University for nearly six years. In that time, I have been the beneficiary of a genuinely loving and compassionate campus culture. I feel safe here.
And not just because of this tone that’s marked so many of my interactions and the movements I’ve witnessed, but because there is a growing culture here of responsibility owed one to the other. I know, for instance, that I have space to speak here.
But I also know that I will be held to account for my actions and opinions. I know that critical engagement with my own beliefs and the beliefs of others will be demanded of me, in the pursuit of more just and healthy relationships and policy.
But in these past few weeks, something has changed. I don’t feel safe right now. I don’t feel safe because I see that the infrastructure supporting this culture and its rules can be flaunted so very easily. It was deeply unsettling: sitting in the General Assembly and witnessing the speed with which ideas, allegedly sacrosanct, can be discarded as soon as it becomes clear that they aren’t going to get you what you want.
I saw a group of students go, in the span of five minutes, from praising democracy as the highest of ideals to walking out and, in so doing, directly disenfranchising over 500 of their fellow students. I saw a man, an absolute mensch – explaining with beautifully-reasoned appeals to history, to social justice, to international jurisprudence, and to the deeply personal hurt he endures as he’s forced into everyday complicity with his own family’s oppression – callously interrupted, over and over and over. Frankly, any of us can go out and buy Israeli goods if we choose to do so.
But McMaster’s purchasing policy is not giving anyone a choice. It is forcing students to accept complicity in an economic structure with which they may take legitimate moral issue. Now, if we truly want this campus to be accessible to all people, then that is a truth with which we must engage.
My experience of Jewishness is an increasingly frustrating one. It is a profoundly lonely feeling: the idea that it is some singular, coherent identity that must be preserved in opposition to a hostile world, when I see so much love and humanity trying desperately to touch us. It is as though, sometimes, the joy and the pain of my family’s history are barred to me because I disagree with that premise.
We can’t do that to each other. We can’t hold each other’s histories hostage. We cannot turn issues of human rights into theological or racial ones, or conflate criticism of governmental policy with anti-Semitism – as though all Jews are of one voice in this matter. Because we ought to know what it’s like to lose a history.
Because the answer to that trauma has to be to act as faithful stewards of history – not to make myths and monsters of our brothers and sisters. And I will not accept an exchange of my own culture’s embrace for hateful or racist words put into my mouth.
And they are. I’ve heard them.
I was raised to believe ours was a religion of freedom. That it is not enough to be content in our own freedom, but that we must remember our own degradation and must toil until all people are free from bondage. That begins with listening to the oppressed, and holding ourselves to account.