Encampment at University of Ottawa: A Hillel Ottawa perspective

The E-Bulletin met with Jamie Sweigman, Hillel Ottawa Director, to learn more about how the anti-Israel protest is affecting Jewish life on campus, and how Hillel Ottawa is supporting Jewish students through this difficult time.

EB: How have the Jewish students been impacted by the encampments? 

JS: The encampment at the University of Ottawa has been set up since April 29. Their presence poses a risk for Jewish students on campus, makes students feel intimidated, radicalizes people against Israel, and has been a site for hateful and violent language and signage.

Many students have already returned home for the summer. They are waiting to see what happens, but students who need to return to campus for summer classes or jobs are reticent to do so. Some have decided to remain outside the city, missing out on local opportunities. Those who have remained in Ottawa and live in the neighbourhoods around uOttawa or visit campus regularly, must deal with verbal harassment and people yelling and pointing at them, calling them names such as “yehude” and hearing chants such as “Resistance is justified when people are occupied!” In addition, there are the visual assaults such as bearing witness to Hamas flags and seeing “Globalize the Intifada” written on the sidewalk.

EB: How are they feeling? 

JS: Students are intimidated by the language they are hearing. They feel unwelcome and unsafe. The administration is making statements, claiming that the encampments will not be tolerated, however, have taken no action against it. 

The students are also scared and never know if they will be physically harmed by a member of the encampment. Our Jewish students know that people on the lawn are misinformed and spreading misinformation to each other and others they encounter about the true nature of the war, school policies, local laws, and the meaning behind the chants, symbols, and signs.  This is frustrating for the Jewish students as they would be open to meaningful dialogue and education, but that can’t happen under these conditions, so they feel powerless to effect change.
EB:  What is happening to support the Jewish community through this? 

JS: First, Hillel staff and student leadership together with the Network of Engaged Canadian Academics (NECA), a group of faculty members across Canada founded by Ottawa Jewish academics, and Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and have participated in numerous, at first, daily, and now weekly meetings with both local university administrations to voice concerns and press them to take action against the encampments. 

Hillel Ottawa staff are in daily contact with students, from those who want to take action, and those who need support to get through the day. Some students have been filming and photographing concerning images and sending them to Hillel Ottawa. We have been sharing this with university administration and local law enforcement in hopes of getting those particular bad actors removed. There have been some arrests of anti-Israel protestors, but that has, unfortunately, not deterred the protest. 

Jewish Federation staff, like David Sachs, have also visited and monitored the situation as well as participating in meetings with the university.
EB: What steps has the administration taken to support Jewish student safety at this time? 

JS: The University of Ottawa administration and security team have been communicating with Hillel Ottawa on a regular basis. We can’t divulge all the details of our work with the university, but they have said they strongly support the Jewish community on campus. Dealing with the encampment is an extremely complex issue. But in the meantime, Jacques Fremont, the president of uOttawa, is mitigating negative impacts of the encampments on Jewish students the by taking seriously the strong language about violent speech that is heard. Additionally, when a Hamas flag was seen worn by a participant in the encampment, he told organizers this was unacceptable, and the individual was ejected. 

University administration has also had talks with NECA to address antisemitism on Canadian campuses and is considering several initiatives for next year that we believe will have a big impact. 

EB: Should the Jewish community support the Jewish student through a counter protest? 

JS: No, our students are against this. 

Research shows that nearly half of Canadians are opposed to university protests. Based on this research, Hillel Ottawa consulted with Jewish students from numerous campuses across Ottawa to gauge their thoughts on a counter-protest. Afterall, it is the student population that will have to contend with the aftereffects of a counter-protest. 

All students in the focus group agreed that hosting a counter-protest would be unproductive. 

Among the concerns they shared were increased tension between Jewish students and the protesters, decreased safety for Jewish students on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods, and increased media coverage that may not support the dismantling of the encampment. 
EB: What can we be optimistic about? 

JS: Hillel Ottawa will continue to host wellness and Jewish culture events throughout the summer. For example, on May 14, for Yom Ha’atzmaut, Hillel Ottawa hosted a BBQ party for all university and college students in town as well as young professionals that are working in Ottawa for the summer. The event was packed with over 50 young Jewish adults. Participants sang and danced to Israeli music, proudly displayed their Jewish Identities, and celebrated their resiliency as a global Jewish community. Together, they embraced the strength they have embodied over the duration of the encampment and since Oct. 7. The event reminded all in attendance that their love being Jewish is powerful and the haters can’t take that away.  
Also, we are thrilled to have Jordan Gregory as our summer intern. She will be working with the team to develop and host events for Jewish students in Ottawa and help prepare for a fabulous new school year. Jordan is from Ottawa and has been attending Western University but is excited to be back home with her Jewish Ottawa community. 

As we gear up for the start of the Fall semester, we are excited to continue hosting events that provide students with wellness support, access to kosher food, opportunities to connect with their Jewish culture, and form strong relationships within the Ottawa Jewish community both between students and with external community members. 

Some popular events that we cannot wait to continue hosting in the next school year include our bagel lunches and Shabbat dinners. We will also be continuing with our Kol Yisrael learning program for students to learn about Israeli history. 

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