Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, has become a yearly tradition in which we reflect on those lives senselessly taken amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. It also reminds us of the fragility, as well as the vulnerability, of human life. The consequences of the Holocaust have demonstrated to the Jewish people that they cannot rely on others for their protection. This sentiment has led to the necessity of a Jewish state to safeguard the interests of its people. As a result, the words “never again” have been continuously repeated and permanently inscribed in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.
With these vivid memories, the state of Israel operates on a daily basis to protect the Jewish people from harm at any cost. Simultaneously, Israelis recognize the importance of remaining as ethical as possible in their actions. For example, the IDF claims that it “goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and to minimize collateral damage”. They often drop leaflets in advance, effectively warning civilians of planned operations before they strike on alleged terrorist bases.
This Israeli mentality has often invited criticism from those who often disapprove of the West, which largely include democratic as well as economically and militarily powerful nations. Israel, commonly recognized as the only liberal-democratic state in the Middle East, tends to fall into such categorical condemnation often because of its close ties with the United States. Nevertheless, demonizing Israel has quickly become fashionable particularly on university campuses. Within such a setting, impressionable students can quickly be mobilized into taking part in such a movement without fully understanding the consequences or reaches of their actions. The university institution is one which strives to advocate a welcoming environment for all students, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Furthermore, any form of intolerance is frowned upon and intended to be taken seriously.
Paradoxically, what is often the case is a hostile atmosphere whereby students may feel endangered, particularly when issues with regards to Israel are raised. In these cases, university administrators can be worried about becoming too involved leaving many incidents ignored until it is too late and violence has already ensued. One only needs to look at two Canadian campuses, York University in Toronto and Concordia University in Montreal, to understand the harmful implications that the anti-Israel movement can bring.
York University has become a hotbed of tension pertaining to the Middle East and in particular Israel. One example occurred in 2010 when two Jewish students were assaulted in their offices after a pro-Israel event. Unfortunately, this incident was not isolated. Over the years, many similar events have transpired, at York University and among many other campuses. An even more frightening event occurred earlier in 2002 at Concordia, in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to speak. This event was cancelled after several hundred demonstrators, who had called Netanyahu anti-Palestinian and a terrorist, threw chairs and newspaper boxes at police and managed to get into a university building.
Such incidents, as the ones described above, do not only intimidate, silence and frighten those students who might disagree – they also effectively shut down free speech. Granted, it is important to preserve free speech within a liberal institution such as a university. It is also critical to protect the safety and security of every individual who belongs to such an establishment. No student intends on attending university with the fear of being targeted or attacked for his or her beliefs. Furthermore, no parent wants to send his or her children into an antagonistic environment.
Some may rightly ask, what are the causes of these passionate emotions that affect the campus climate, thousands of miles away, in North America? The answer is not immediately clear. Israel is a society that offers open and fair elections, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, full rights for women, homosexuals and Israeli-Arabs, among many other civil liberties which are often taken for granted. Many of these same freedoms are not offered within numerous countries throughout the Middle East. Critics often fail to compare Israel to the other nations in the region, often holding Israel to a nearly impossible standard.
On April 30, 2014, twenty-five children were said to have been killed in an elementary school bombing in Syria. Most disturbing is the fact that they were barrel bombs which “typically consist of barrels stuffed with explosives and objects such as nails to maximize carnage.” Where is the outrage? Where is the disdain for such a gruesome event which took the lives of dozens of children? Furthermore, where is the mobilization across Western campuses in condemning such actions or the academic boycott of the institutions which exist within these parameters?
On a more regional scale, Syria has suffered from internal strife and a civil war for over three years in which almost 150,000 have been killed with millions more displaced. In addition, in Iran it has been estimated that hundreds of homosexuals have been hung merely for their sexual orientation. The world continues to be silent during such incidents unless Israel plays a role.
Any reasonable supporter of Israel would not argue that criticism, where rightly justified, is unacceptable. However, it should be applied uniformly, without discrimination. Holding the state of Israel to one standard, while simultaneously ignoring or holding others to a lower standard, is simply unfair. By examining the state of Israel and situating it in the socio-political and geographic conditions in which it exists, one can realize its achievements and ability as a force of good in this often harsh and uncompassionate world.
Approximately sixty-six years after the inception of the state of Israel, memories of the Holocaust continue to linger. As Israel evolves, these sentiments will surely not fade. However, those living within its boundaries have contributed to a country that is progressively advanced in countless ways. One can only hope that its opponents will develop a greater awareness of the issues facing the region. The key to such a goal is simply education. This includes gaining a greater awareness of all the issues involved instead of devising false conclusions based on a narrow focus. However, the onus lies not only on the younger generation. Each individual must take it upon him or herself to become more mindful of the issues facing the Middle East today, which extend far beyond its physical borders. Such a task is not only for one’s own personal benefit, but also for the sake of those living under the constant threat of conflict today.
Dana Gold is an SPME Fellow and this essay was written for SPME.