A few weeks ago, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) launched a large-scale campaign at Carleton University by hanging inflammatory posters all over campus. The posters were pictures of cabinet ministers in the current Israeli government with provocative quotes, many of which were less than kind to Arabs, followed by “Still think Israel wants peace?”
Most Jewish students at Carleton were immensely frustrated by this poster campaign, and there were immediate calls for action. In an attempt to create unity and prevent irrational responses from lone actors, a member of Hillel created a secret Facebook group where temporary calm was established. However, the tranquility of level-headedness quickly collapsed and the reaction from many was disheartening.
Some called for SAIA’s posters to be torn down. Others suggested covering them up with innocuous cat memes; and several people called for students to complain to Equity Services en masse in the hope that they would force SAIA to take down the posters or even try to have SAIA shut down as an official campus group.
Many did speak to Equity Services only to be told (predictably) that Equity Services couldn’t really do anything about it, but they were sorry that students felt discriminated against.
As vice-president (communications) of the Israel Awareness Committee (IAC), I wrote an op-ed for the student newspaper explaining why the poster campaign was underhanded and did little to advance dialogue on a complex subject that deserves substantial discussion, not simplistic talking points. I also explained that Zionism is a broad spectrum encompassing many views; that, like me, one could oppose both the actions of the current Israeli government and the settlements movement and still be a proud Zionist; and that the IAC looks forward to engaging in meaningful dialogue with students of all views and backgrounds.
While I expected such a childish campaign from SAIA, I didn’t expect such a hypocritical response from my colleagues.
I say hypocritical because these same people rightfully decried the McGill student newspaper’s actions in no longer publishing pro-Zionist columns, but then tried to shut down the free speech of a group [SAIA] with an opposing ideology.
I’d be the first to say that SAIA’s poster campaign was repugnant and I have no doubt that many (if not all) of their executives are anti-Semitic. But the poster campaign itself is not anti-Semitic and to go crying to Equity Services to label it as such in order to stifle their views both belittles real anti-Semitism and does little to help our cause.
There’s a difference between the government of Israel and the State of Israel and, while SAIA clearly has both in its crosshairs, I’m shocked to see so many of my colleagues feel personally targeted when confronted with inconvenient truths about some members of the government. Rather than get into the politics of the current Israeli government’s agenda, I will say that both criticism and praise of its policies should be protected speech.
It’s unfortunate that, rather than reflecting on criticism, or entering into debate, many students have gone the route of U.S. President Donald Trump and labelled anything they disagree with as “fake news” that needs to be shut down immediately. This process practically plays into the hands of our opponents.
Recently, the Israeli government denied – but then allowed – entry into Israel to a staff member of Human Rights Watch to cover human rights issues in the West Bank and Gaza because its reports are considered biased against Israel by the government.
On a similar note of crushing freedom of expression, the Knesset passed a bill that forbids people who openly call for boycotting settlements from entering Israel – even though many well-known Israelis embrace the concept of treating Israel-proper differently than the West Bank. What credibility do we have as advocates for freedom when we actively work to crush it? We don’t get to only support free expression when it’s convenient.
Ultimately, we have so much to gain by staying on the moral high ground. If we completely silence criticism, then all we’ve done is open ourselves up to more of it.