On November 2014, I sat outside a packed study hall, where the Ryerson Student Union (RSU) in Toronto was holding its Semi-Annual General Meeting (AGM). I found myself in similar places all too often, awaiting the results of debates about motions to support the boycott campaign against Israel. But this meeting was different.
In April 2014, the RSU passed a divestment resolution against Israel, but the Jewish and pro-Israel community decided that they weren’t going to take it lying down. At the following AGM, a group of students assembled and presented a motion calling on the RSU to adopt a definition of antisemitism.
After hours of deliberation, a decision was made. The RSU chose to adopt a version of the definition, but removed any mention of Israel.
Why did this happen? The RSU president at the time was the same person who initiated the boycott motion passed by the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students. He and his allies actively contributed to hatred against the Jewish community, then silenced the voices of Jewish students who tried to speak up. It’s tragic that antisemites were allowed to dictate the definition of antisemitism at Ryerson.
Fast-forward to this past academic year. Jewish students tried to make their voices heard again by submitting an AGM motion to hold a Holocaust education week on campus. But again, they were silenced. A walkout was orchestrated to prevent the vote from even happening.
This time, however, the Jewish community was able to hold the RSU accountable and have their concerns taken seriously. The RSU not only approved Holocaust Education Week, but passed a motion (brought forward by the leadership of Students Supporting Israel at Ryerson University) to adopt the Ottawa Protocol as the official RSU definition of antisemitism.
The Ottawa Protocol is the definition used by the Canadian government. It includes clear examples of antisemitism related to Israel: denying the Jewish People’s right to self-determination, applying double standards to Israel and demonizing Israel. The RSU set an important precedent as the first ever Canadian student government to adopt such a definition.
When I take a moment to think about this series of events, it leaves me dumbfounded and angry. How did we get to the point where others feel entitled to dictate the definition of antisemitism to us? How is it that student government representatives can push boycotts, change the meaning of antisemitism against the will of the Jewish community and hardly anyone bats an eye? Wouldn’t it be ludicrous if I chose to define what anti-black racism is, on behalf of the black community? Or change the definition of homophobia against the will of the LGBT community? How can anyone on the outside think they have a right to tell the Jewish community, or any community, how they experience oppression?
Part of the responsibility lies with us. The organized Jewish community in Canada put forward a clear definition of antisemitism with the Ottawa Protocol, which includes various forms of hatred directed toward Israel. This part of the definition is non-negotiable as it reflects the experiences of the majority of Canadian Jews on and off campus. We must do more to educate our fellow Canadians about this reality, and demand the same respect that all communities deserve.
Every group that tries to fight for its rights is met with resistance from those who seek to stifle progress, and the Jewish People are certainly no exception. While the struggle continues, Ryerson has provided us with an amazing example of how a resilient Jewish community can overcome every obstacle to make its voice heard. With enough persistence and resolve, I believe students at other universities across the country can do the same.
The author is Canadian campus director for Stand- WithUs Canada.