In a recent Ottawa Jewish Bulletin column, Rabbi Steven Garten quoted Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Having recently learned more about politics on a university campus than I care to, I am inclined to agree.
Watching the live feed from a student government meeting at the University of Ottawa, where 10 minutes was spent debating whether or not to expand the discussion by five minutes and then voting not to do so, did not feel like the best use of anyone’s time. Far more serious is the fact that a small group of student leaders are able to hold repeated votes on the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in the hope of achieving a different result. At the third defeat this year, on March 25, this group of self-interested student government officials pledged to try again before the school year concludes. This is reprehensible.
When you’re a child and learning how walk, the adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is appropriate and helpful. However, when it comes to BDS, which as courageous University of Ottawa President Jacques Frémont called “divisive and a detriment to an open and welcoming campus environment,” this ongoing effort is an egregious perversion of democracy. The student government’s determination to waste time and precious resources to pass a resolution on BDS that the University of Ottawa (again, in the words of Frémont) “will have no part of” is an affront.
Three times this year I watched Jewish students mobilize to defeat BDS. Their passion, eloquence and determination are remarkable and must be applauded. Similarly, their allies on campus who take principled stands for dialogue, freedom, openness and who oppose BDS, are also laudable.
But I sincerely wish it were not necessary. And it saddens and angers me to hear stories about the anti-Semitism Jewish students experience on campus today.
Students are supposed to stress about exams and term papers, because they lack the real world experience to know that campus days will end up being the golden era of their free time. Students are supposed to be idealistic, and they are supposed to anoint themselves subject matter experts, having taking an introductory course on a particular topic. They are supposed to drink too much and make mistakes that they laugh about later in life, but that have no long-term negative impacts.
They are not supposed to be feel unsafe on the campus they call home, and they should not repeatedly have to fight against a rigged system to defend their rights.
I am heartened that the students are supported in their efforts by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and three critically important organizations Federation funds – Hillel Ottawa, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Chabad Student Network. I am heartened that Jewish professionals such as Dovi Chein and Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky are not only strategizing and mobilizing, but providing the emotional support that students need. It is not easy for students to sit in these often-hostile meeting rooms. As we all know, the chair of a meeting is supposed to be impartial and facilitate dialogue and discussion. As an example of the hostility that Jewish students and their allies face on campus, the chair of the March 25 meetings announced the results of the vote by saying unfortunately, the resolution did not pass. What is unfortunate is that she is in a position of authority and contributing to a challenging campus environment.
Our students are well prepared for another potential vote and they are heartened by President Frémont’s unequivocal denunciation of BDS. Let’s hope instead they can end the semester kvetching about the stress of finals and not worrying about anything else.
Andrea Freedman is the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.