Protests are not an unusual sight at McGill University in Montreal. Student activism is something of a vaunted tradition at our school. But March’s Israeli Apartheid Week was not a peaceful civil rights protest.
No one was hurt, as far as I know, but rhetoric can be just as damaging. Weeks after the McGill demonstration, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, a radicalized teenager filmed himself ripping down and burning an Israeli flag in front of a Montreal Jewish day school. He did not injure anyone, but his actions represented a powerful and deeply unsettling statement.
As I approached the McGill library, I heard violent slogans ricocheting off our buildings’ walls, things like,
McGill, McGill, we charge you with genocide!
I believe, I believe… I believe that Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!
When I got closer, I saw a large throng of people — many appeared not to be students — wearing Palestinian kuffiyeh scarves, draped in Palestinian flags. The crowd was surrounding a young man who, as if in a trance, swayed back and forth, leading the demonstrators along in anti-Zionist mantras. Some were in Arabic, but they said:
Intifada until death! Revolutionaries, to the streets!
And in English, they also intoned:
One solution! Intifada revolution! Armed struggle is justified [sic].
Peaceful assemblies are essential to democracy. But it is unsettling to be a Jewish student on campus when Students in Solidarity with Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) invites outside organizations — the Palestine Youth Movement (PYM), Montreal 4 Palestine, and others — to bully us into submission. This is especially disconcerting, because these groups are allegedly sympathetic towards, if not connected (through the NGO “Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network”) to extremist entities like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
PYM, for example, has openly praised terrorists as “heroes.” It displayed a PFLP flag at a New York protest last year, and it often circulates images identical to the PFLP’s (minus their signature icon).
Tactics like these have nothing to do with “solidarity.” When participants chant revolutionary and violent slogans, they are not helping anyone: they are honoring their own self-righteous delusions and advocating against solutions that would actually help Palestinians. As I wrote in an earlier column, SPHR and similar organizations formed to oppose the Oslo Accords. They reject any and all normalization with Israel. They do not want to “solve” the Arab-Israeli conflict: they want to win it, at any cost.
I had my doubts about their inability to engage in good faith discussions before 2022, when McGill’s campus descended into total chaos following the unconstitutional Palestine Solidarity Policy referendum. If I still held any reservations, I disavowed them in March. While I was watching the protest (and filming, I will admit), an activist leader confronted me and a friend. We tried to calm the situation, asking if we could all agree that peace would be best for everyone. The man laughed, asking if we “really thought [the protest] was about peace?”
I wanted to understand his point of view, so I asked him what he thought “intifada” meant. He never directly answered that question, but he made his intentions clear. We debated the Arab-Israeli conflict’s historical nuances — we even agreed on some things — but it was hard to have a real discussion because he repeatedly made outrageous, offensive claims. For instance, he matter-of-factly insisted that “Jews are like Nazis,” and that “all Zionists support fascism.” He even tried to convince me that the protests consuming the Jewish State today are not about judicial reform but “maintaining apartheid.”
When I asked him what he would do about the status quo, he said he supports the genocidal Gazan terrorist organization Hamas, because they are the “only ones resisting.” He also defended the Nablus Lions’ Den, a newer terrorist faction that has claimed responsibility for attacks on civilians, as “heroes” and “martyrs.” When we finally finished our conversation, he refused to shake my hand, saying (verbatim) that he does not see Zionists as human.
That outcome was bad enough. It is worse that most students who saw the protest probably did not have that conversation and, as a result, may have placed the demonstration on par with civil-rights era protests, or even climate-change activism. SPHR expends a lot of energy to promote that impression, and it seems to be working. Although I know why it is absurd, for instance, to equate Palestinian nationalism to Indigenous advocacy in Canada — and why it is baseless to call Israel a “genocidal,” settler-colonial regime — not everyone can filter those statements.
I used to naively believe my anti-Zionist Jewish friends, who argued that Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is about peacefully criticizing Israel, not destroying it. That is why I wrote my (now ironic sounding) 2019 McGill Tribune article, “McGill is not an antisemitic university.” But encounters like the one I had this March — not to mention their propensity to engage in antisemitic conspiracy theories, dismiss alleged survivors of sexual harassment when it is not politically expedient, and more — indicate that SPHR is not the well-intentioned, peace-loving campus club I once imagined it was.
Most students may not realize what SPHR is, because student journalists are too intimidated (or biased) to criticize them. Campus outlets like The McGill Daily, as usual, did not mention the violent slogans when they reported on this year’s demonstrations. The Tribune (they recently removed “McGill” from their name) did not cover it at all. I am not surprised: the Daily’s anti-Zionist position is well-known, and the Tribune allegedly rejected a students’ article because she called out a Queer club for discriminating against Zionists. Meanwhile, although the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) finally sanctioned SPHR last year, this was because the club insulted the SSMU Board of Directors, not for antisemitism.
Students must realize that SPHR’s allyship with dovish, progressive causes is a farce. Although their social media posts may extol nonviolent “civil disobedience,” they do not believe in that. Just ask them. We must stop making excuses for extremist clubs just because they use allyship rhetoric. They are hypocrites and it is time for more students to recognize that.
Jonah Fried is a graduating history student at McGill University and a 2021-2023 CAMERA Fellow.