What would you do if someone called you ‘a f—ing Jew’? asks Pauline Colwin.
‘Great, just what I want to see, a f—ing Jew.”
These ugly, hate-filled words were said recently to Eyal Podolsky, a Jewish University of Ottawa student, as he walked on campus. Podolsky is a well-known youth leader. In 2017, he won the prestigious Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s Student Award for “demonstrating leadership and outstanding commitment to the Ottawa Jewish community.”
He is now president of Hillel Ottawa, a culture club that supports and celebrates Jewish life for university students. He shared his story of the racist slur last month at the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa’s (SFUO) General Assembly, prior to a vote on a motion to advance the anti-Israel Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus.
BDS, as described by the Federation’s advocacy partner, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), “seeks to delegitimize and isolate Israel, while promoting the false idea that Israel is solely responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict and, in turn, pushes for a boycott of the only liberal democracy in the Middle East while exempting the world’s worst human rights violators from such attention.
“BDS is an assault on all Israelis – including Israelis who are staunch peace activists.”
By targeting all Israelis, and the only Jewish state, BDS is a form of discrimination. Many BDS activists even openly declare that their goal is the destruction of the state of Israel. As for BDS on Canadian campuses, this is an attempt to import the Middle East conflict into Canada by illegitimately targeting businesses, universities and civil society institutions. All these elements show that BDS is at odds with Canadian values and falls outside the genuine peace movement that emphasizes fairness and mutual responsibilities.
It was in this climate, in front of room packed for the GA, that Podolsky stood alone at the mic trying to express how BDS breeds a negative atmosphere on campus for Jewish students.
As he spoke, another student rose and rushed forward. Ignoring the rules of the GA process, and deaf to Podolsky’s personal experience, the student dismissed the evidence of anti-Semitism and repeated the SFUO stance that “BDS is not anti-Jewish.”
For Podolsky, this was nothing new. In fact, this was what he was trying to explain: how BDS can create an atmosphere where some Jews are made to feel unwelcome, where they have to fight to keep their clubs, and where open, peaceful dialogue is shut down. But Podolsky would not be silenced. He is a young man brimming with moral courage. He stood his ground.
“Well, of course I knew the other student was there, but I shut him out. I just kept focused.”
The BDS vote was rejected at the GA, failing to get the required two-thirds majority. Just two weeks later, the SFUO brought BDS back to the table for yet another vote. It was defeated again.
This was the third attempt in the past six months to get BDS implemented at U of O. Earlier in the fall, the SFUO also tried to de-ratify Hillel Ottawa and the Israel Awareness Committee, a student-led Israel advocacy group. The clubs were eventually reinstated.
On the surface, it seemed against all odds that a BDS motion would not get passed, considering the SFUO executives’ very clear and openly stated BDS agenda.
However, student leaders like Podolsky organized and mobilized other students, urging them to come out and vote against BDS. This involved email campaigns, phone calls and one-on-one meetings to discuss BDS and the effect it has on a campus for Jewish students. Sometimes it was a quick heads-up and a reminder of the upcoming vote; other times, it meant an hour-long dialogue about the best ways to achieve peace and the true power and meaning of free speech. The impressive results of these efforts were that hundreds of informed students came out to have their voices heard.
Podolsky points out how this was really a massive team effort of 30 or more leaders reaching out to their networks. He gives particular credit to student Joseph Feldberg, who was “instrumental in mobilizing” the numbers needed for the GA vote. He also thanks the Federation, CIJA and other partners like the Chabad Student Network.
In a message to the community after the last vote, Andrea Freedman, Federation’s CEO, applauded the students, describing how they “demonstrated tremendous fortitude.” She added, “Our students are fighting a difficult battle, and they are doing so on behalf of everyone who values dialogue, debate and diversity.”
As Freedman implies, this battle will be ongoing. The SFUO has said it will again bring a BDS vote to the table — even before the end of the school year.
“I’m tired,” admits Podolsky, who was interviewed in the short half-hour between finishing a paper and his next class.
Dovi Chein, executive director of Hillel Ottawa agrees. “Our students have invested too much time and energy into this.” He says the campaign is exhausting. It takes students from their studies and social life and forces them into emotionally drawn-out situations where their feelings and sense of Jewish identity face criticism and possible dismissal.
However, despite this intense atmosphere, Chein says Hillel Ottawa has experienced an incredible year of growth with tremendous student involvement.
“The divisive nature of these BDS motions has fostered an even stronger pro-Israel and Jewish community on campus,” he says.
Chein is proud of Hillel’s work creating an inclusive, welcoming place for all Jews, regardless of affiliation. “We have a tent with no walls. Everyone is welcome. From Orthodox students to those who identify as Jews because one of their grandparents is Jewish, Hillel is a place for everyone.
“Our goal is to ensure Jewish students feel safe, supported, and have a place to be themselves,” says Chein.
He ended the interview with a glimmer of hope.
After the last vote, Hillel offered to sit and talk with BDS supporters on campus. While one student immediately began to reject the offer, another — a young woman — said she would be willing to meet. This young woman is Palestinian and she wants peace, something sincere activists understand can come only from respectful dialogue.
See also: Federation Report: Hillel students are engaged, united and strong.