Is Israel starting to lose the battle for “hearts and minds” on Canadian campuses?

clash at york u

Vietnam. Civil Rights. Women’s rights. Universities have always been a fertile ground for debate over issues of justice and equality. Today there is increasing discussion over Israel/Palestine. Who’s winning? Who’s losing? See more

In a recent email, David Cape, Chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), sent a warning note to his members and supporters:

“There is (…) a problem on campus”, warned Cape. “Anti-Israel activity on campus strikes a nerve. Anti-Zionist activists are offensive in their message, outrageous in their tactics, and – in the deliberate misuse of the language of human rights – disingenuous about their true goals.”

However, Cape went on to reassuringly list the 5 things that CIJA is doing to counteract the rising tide of criticism aimed at Israel on campuses. These include hiring a full-time campus coordinator, and paying for more non-Jewish students to take free trips to Israel.

So, is it working? Who is winning the campus war for student “hearts and minds”?

There are lots of signs that indicate Israel is still ahead. For example, on January 27th, students at the University of Waterloo turned down a referendum demanding that the University to sever its links with Israeli Universities. The Israel lobby was relieved by the defeat and called it ‘another blow to BDS’.

And yet, it must worry Mr. Cape that over 1800 UW students voted “yes” on that same referendum, something that seemed impossible as little as 5 years ago.

When the first “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW) event was held at the University of Toronto in 2005, it mainly appealed to students (and faculty) who saw themselves as “radicals” in the defense of justice.

IAW events were actively resisted on campuses across Canada by university administrations and by Jewish student groups organized in “Hillel Societies” . They claimed that Israel Apartheid Week events were “anti-Semitic” activities and created a climate of hate against Jews on campus.

The campus Hillel societies are centrally coordinated by the major institutions of the Israel lobby. Instead of entering into a discussion about Israel and the Palestinians, they mostly focused on trying to prevent IAW activities completely. In this they closely followed official Hillel “standards of partnership” which oppose discussion with most of those who criticize the State of Israel.

Despite attempts to eliminate it, IAW spread to over a dozen Canadian campuses, helped by the international movement to boycott Israel called BDS. Though still a marginal phenomenon, IAW/BDS was spectacularly successful in drawing attention to the Israel/Palestine issue both on- and off- campus.

However, in the wake of Israel’s repeated bombing of Gaza, and its continued construction of settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s policy and actions are being questioned by ever wider swaths of the U.S. and Canadian student (and faculty) populations, including Jews.

In a development that has alarmed the conservative Jewish establishment in the USA and Canada, several campuses have seen the birth of “Open Hillel” societies – a movement of progressive Jewish youth which actively defend their right, as Jews, to be critical of Israel. The first campus Open Hillel was started at Harvard University in 2012, and the movement is now spreading across the USA and even into Canada.

Mira Sucharov, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa recently wrote an article in The Jewish Forward magazine describing why she, as a liberal Zionist, had agreed to join the Academic Council of Open Hillel. Sucharov does not agree with BDS, but in her article she explains why she thinks it’s important to discuss with those who do. Her Facebook page lit up with comments from other Jews – both in support and in condemnation.

At the University of British Columbia, a similar development has been the creation of a student organization called the “Progressive Jewish Alliance” (PJA). The organization’s founder, Madison Slobin explains its objectives in an interview:

PJA is open to all Jews – Zionist and non Zionist. Their objective is to promote serious discussion among “progressive” Jews on campus on a variety of topics including Israel/Palestine. They have invited strong anti-Zionists as speakers to their public events, but also some liberal Zionists as well. All are welcome. Critical debate is encouraged.

It would appear that despite CIJA’s attempts to control the message, a serious discussion of Israel/Palestine is starting to develop on Canadian campuses including among Jews. The battle for “hearts and minds” is just beginning.


  1. This analysis is both interesting and encouraging! I can think of a number of people who will want to see it.

Comments are closed.