Guest columnist Erin Yantzi is a student at the University of Waterloo. She is researching the presence and effects of militarism and trauma in Israeli society. Read her column here.
This fall, a student chapter of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) was launched at the McGill campus in Montreal. The group was started by two McGill students to offer a “different Jewish perspective” on campus.
IJV McGill is just one of three recently created Jewish student groups on university campuses in Canada in response to the marginalization and silencing of critical voices in more mainstream Jewish student organizations.
Two other alternative Jewish student groups exist: Independent Jewish Voices York (IJVY) and Progressive Jewish Alliance at University of British Columbia (PJAUBC), both launching in 2015.
A 2015 press release from IJV York emphasized its close involvement with the larger IJV organization, but working on the university campus in order to create understanding and awareness. They plan to work with another student group, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), specifically calling for the State of Israel to comply with international law with respect to the Palestinian people.
Meanwhile, at UBC, PJAUBC’s approach is slightly different. It does not define itself as Zionist, non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, believing instead in the importance of bringing together a variety of liberal Jews into a space for conversation. (See CTIP’s Peter Larson’s interview with one of PJAUBC’s founders earlier this year.) In their first year the group organized two public speaking events, a documentary screening, as well as numerous events for Jewish students.
I interviewed one of IJV McGill’s student founders, Anna, about how and why IJV McGill began.
McGill’s IJV identifies itself as an “anti-/and non-Zionist student group”. While anti-Zionism implies a political opposition to Zionism, McGill IJV embraces both anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, whose Jewish identity is not about Israel, but about living in diaspora. IJV McGill emphasizes, like PJAUBC, that their organization as a space for Jewish students and to “celebrate Jewish culture separately from Zionism”.
McGill’s campus has a number of active Zionist Jewish organizations including Hillel and Israel on Campus and Chabad. IJV McGill show that alternative and dissenting Jewish voices exist among Jewish students.
The groups have created a space where Jewish students may speak, learn and engage with Israel-Palestine in a way that is currently not happening by, and because of, the mainstream Jewish student organizations. However, IJV McGill is prompt to point out that the group’s main goal is not to engage in dialogue within the Jewish community. IJV McGill’s goal is to respond to the call to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. They caution against the Jewish voices, even anti or non-Zionist, taking up too much space when talking about Israel-Palestine.
The founding of these student groups points to a disillusionment and frustration by a small but growing number of Jewish students. Some young Jews are no longer satisfied with the current narrative about Israel embedded in Jewish-life institutions; the subtly reinforced belief that Zionism is Judaism.
IJV McGill grew out of informal Shabbat potlucks at one of the co-founder’s apartment, where, through word-of-mouth and invitation by friends, Jewish students met to create a space for reflection. Students would come with the similar questions about what it means to be Jewish, and Zionism’s influence and role in their Jewish identity. The Shabbat dinners became a place to voice and discuss questions with others who had the same questions, even if no answers were found.
Groups like IJV York and McGill, and PJAUBC are important additions to the many diverse groups on Canadian campuses calling for a just resolution to the occupation, Arab rights in Israel, Palestinian refugees, the conditions in Gaza, and peace for all in Israel-Palestine.
The months and years ahead will show what alternative Jewish student groups on Canadian campuses bring to the table and where their place is in solidarity with those working towards justice and peace in Israel and Palestine.
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