Perspectives by Deborah Corber, CEO
Edition 25, March 2017

Optimism, pessimism, and the realist in between

Deborah CorberAt a recent meeting with Jewish politicians, people offered their thoughts about anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, security, genetic discrimination and various other issues touching the Jewish community of Montreal. I talked about the key role that Federation CJA plays in ensuring the security of communal institutions, including advising shuls, schools and agencies on security infrastructure, training facility users in emergency procedures, cultivating relationships with law enforcement, monitoring the Jewish community campus and providing security services at a wide range of events.

Immediately following my intervention, an individual interjected to say that he had a very different view, that he saw the present and future for Jewish Montreal with great optimism.

I was struck by the speaker’s inference, from my remarks about security, that I viewed the community’s situation with pessimism. I set the record straight, expressing my strong confidence in the future of Jewish Montreal. In truth, though, I don’t think of myself as either an optimist or a pessimist, but rather as a realist, trying to appreciate and optimize the good, while recognizing and acting to meet the challenges.

So how to view the recent incidents at McGill University, which began when a Board member of McGill’s student union (Students’ Society of McGill University or SSMU) tweeted “punch a Zionist today”, and then doubled down by offering his learned opinion that it was “contested that Jews were an ethno-religious group” and that there was no evidence that Jews were “indigenous to the Levant”?

Appropriately, the comments generated a firestorm from various sectors, including condemnation from the administration and a demand by the Arts Undergraduate Society that the student – their representative on SSMU – resigns. The student* refused to resign, and what’s more, the Legislative Council of the SSMU gave further offence when it initially refused to condemn the student’s actions and enabled a hostile discussion of the incident that caused at least some Jewish student leaders to fear for their safety.

I will spare you the details of the twists and turns as the incident unfolded over a week’s time. A few salient facts, however, are worth noting.

First, the Jewish student leadership at McGill rose to the challenge, yet again, of fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (arguably, two sides of the same coin). Our students were not deterred, despite their exhaustion, having navigated a number of anti-Israel campaigns on campus over the past two years.

Second, professionals from Federation CJA’s GenMTL (which includes Hillel) and CIJA sprang into action to strategize, to counsel and to provide emotional support to our student leaders as they all worked 24/7 behind the scenes to stand up against violence on behalf of Jewish and non-Jewish pro-Israel students who have felt directly targeted these past weeks.

Third, many members of our community, including Jewish Montrealers living abroad and Jews worldwide, wrote to the administration to express their outrage and to demand swift disciplinary action.

And finally, the World Union of Jewish Students – an international umbrella movement supporting Jewish student associations worldwide – issued an open letter to the student in question not simply criticizing his actions, but offering one of the most cogent explanations I have yet seen for why anti-Zionism is, by definition, anti-Semitism in disguise.

How does this chapter of the story end? Well, just before Shabbat, on February 17th, the Executive Committee of SSMU issued a press release condemning the student’s incitement of violence and calling for his resignation. In addition, breaking news from the McGill Daily just moments before the press release suggested that the SSMU decision was ultimately the result of strong pressure by Principal Suzanne Fortier.

Depending upon your orientation, you may view this affair through an optimistic or pessimistic lens. Optimistic in that the Jewish community at home and abroad was able to mobilize effectively to achieve justice; pessimistic, in that the incident highlights the ongoing struggles we face as Jews and as Zionists. The realist in me is both inspired by the young Jewish leaders who give us reason to be hopeful about the Jewish future, and chastened by the knowledge that the battle is not yet won.

Yet, I am not daunted by this reality. On the contrary, it fuels my desire to work harder and to do even better to provide the leadership and the support on which our community depends. For, “[we] are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are [we] free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot, 2:21).

*I have chosen not to name the student in question because I do not wish to contribute even indirectly to his status as martyr to an abhorrent cause.

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The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Federation CJA.

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