Hillel Ontario and Hasbara Fellowships partnered with Shaarei Shomayim for a panel discussion on Jewish life on campus, last Shabbat afternoon. We heard from four students and two community professionals: Camilla Benzaquen (York), Tamar Lyons (Ryerson), Geoffrey Handelman (Ryerson), Eton Ziner-Cohen (McGill), Ilan Orzy (Hillel) and Robert Walker (Hasbara). They were each excellent.
In moderating the discussion, I was struck by the complexity of students' experiences. Students felt safe on campus, but at the same time, they felt silenced in conversations with classmates, for being white and Jewish ("check your privilege..."). Students believed that Israel's reputation was improving on campus, but at the same time, they felt pressure to defame Israel if they hoped to advance in student government.
I am in the midst of reading Mihail Sebastian's novel, "For Two Thousand Years." In an early chapter, the narrator describes returning to his Romanian hometown where the local Jews treat him as a hero and ask him about his experience in university. They eagerly wait to hear details of the beatings that Jewish students endured to attend lectures. The narrator conceals his suffering pretending that nothing is amiss. The author underlines the gap between old narratives of Jewishness and a young Jew seeking to create his own new story.
Today's students face a very different experience as Jews on campus from their parents and grandparents. The Antisemitism of today takes a different form from that of eighty, fifty and twenty-years-ago. In discussing campus life, we do well to listen and not simply project from our experiences of years-ago onto our students' experiences of today.