Is Anti-Semitism really rampant at McGill? Two views… and a caution about the words we use

2017-10-31 (3)

Canadian Jewish News ran an alarming headline on its front page on October 25th about rampant anti-Semitism among BDS supporters at McGill University. Was it accurate? Read more…

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP), like many other Canadians concerned about human rights, was very concerned by dramatic headlines in the National Post and the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) alleging anti-Semitism at the McGill student union.

“I was blocked from participating in student government because of my Jewish identity and my affiliations with Jewish organizations”, claimed Noah Lew, a student at McGill.

The case garnered international attention based on accusations by establishment Jewish groups like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith echoing Lew’s claim that those who did not ratify his candidacy for student government acted out of anti-Semitic malice.

CIJA-Quebec Co-Chair, Rabbi Reuben Poupko issued the following statement,

“That students are stigmatized and banned for their political views is sufficiently egregious but, when their very identity causes exclusion, a line has been crossed that will taint SSMU until this wrong is righted. (…) Jewish students at McGill continue to stand proud while those behind this initiative should bow their heads in shame.”

McGill’s principal announced she would launch an investigation.

But wait, may be it’s not anti-Semitic after all…

On deeper investigation, however, it seems that the case of anti-Semitism referred to by the media and the Israel lobby, may not be all that clear-cut after all.

Carleton University professor Mira Sucharov did a little digging. In a recent article in Jewish Forward magazine, Sucharov says “a closer look at the facts suggests that those who voted against him acted out of political – rather than prejudicial or racial – motives. Rather than being voted off the board for his Jewishness, Lew was voted off for his positions on Israel and his own voting record.”

“It is completely fair – and not at all anti-Semitic,” Sucharov argues “to claim that a candidate for the board of student government like Lew with a history of Israel advocacy and affiliations might have influenced this vote. (…) That’s a platform — not an ethnic identity, and fair game for elections.

Of course, being pro-BDS is also a platform, and equally fair game for criticism  and electoral jockeying. To date, neither the media outlets nor the establishment Jewish groups have revised their statements in light of Sucharov’s findings. This might be oversight. Or it might be linked to ongoing efforts by some groups to actively conflate support for BDS – a political position – with anti-Semitism, a form of racism.

But be careful… words do matter

Sucharov’s article however, goes on to raise an important caveat.

“While I don’t think Lew’s dismissal was racially motivated, I do not deny that Lew experienced this series of events as anti-Semitism, and the McGill community must take this seriously – especially given the recent past.

Sucharov is referring to several recent incidents at McGill, including one where a student government official had sent out an angry  tweet saying “punch a Zionist” and another when the McGill Daily — the main student newspaper — decided to ban Zionist viewpoints from its pages altogether.

“Raise the issue, but lower the temperature”

– CTIP motto

CTIP has no grounds for assessing Mr. Lew’s real motives. Did he really feel intimidated as a Jew, or is he purposefully conflating support of BDS and criticism of Israel, with anti-Semitism?

Most Canadian Jews do agree (to a greater or lesser degree) with the Zionist ideal, so threatening Zionists, or banning Zionists from having a voice, is not likely to make those Jews feel comfortable in Canada, or to encourage discussion. CTIP encourages thoughtful, reasoned debate among Canadians over the appropriate policy response to the Israel/Palestine issue. This includes having a respectful interaction with those Canadians who believe Zionism is a legitimate way to protect Jews from persecution.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue. We invite comments from readers. Both Zionists and non-Zionist opinion is welcome as long as it is expressed in a respectful way. If you support our educational mission, why not join? Or make a donation? Or learn more about what we do?  Contact us at



  1. Re “CTIP encourages thoughtful, reasoned debate among Canadians over the appropriate policy response to the Israel/Palestine issue. This includes having a respectful interaction with those Canadians who believe Zionism is a legitimate way to protect Jews from persecution.”

    Peter, please share with us an answer to these questions:
    1) “What are your expected outcomes of “thoughtful, reasoned debate” on this issue?
    2) How long have you been promoting this approach?
    3) In the context of your “expected outcomes”, what progress has been achieved?

    Re the value of “thoughtful, reasoned debate”, I share the view of British philosopher John Gray. To paraphrase from his BBC Point of View talk on July 18, 2014, titled, “Believing on reason is childish” —

    “The belief in the power of reason to improve humankind rests on childishly simple ideas he says. One of the commonest is that history’s crimes are mistakes that can be avoided as we gain greater knowledge. But if history teaches us anything, Gray asserts, it’s that behaviours and attitudes like cruelty and hatred are permanent human flaws. To imagine that we can become more rational is an example of magical thinking and an expression of the belief in the omnipotence of the human will that psychoanalysts identify as the fundamental infantile fantasy. John Gray believes that we’d all be better off if we saw ourselves as we are: intermittently and only ever partly rational creatures, who never really grow up.”

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    1. Hey FJWhite,
      Thanks for your comment. CTIP does not believe in, or support Zionism. But many, many Canadians do so. Some are consciously Zionists. Most are just normal Canadians who agree with the idea that Jews need and deserve a state of their own in the middle east.

      CTIP does not believe that Canadians who support Zionism are automatically devils, or evil. Many do so because they believe that the only, or the best way to protect Jews, given their history of persecution, is for them to have a state. That is an opinion that deserves to be discussed.

      CTIP has been promoting this approach since its founding.

      As to progress, I’m sorry to say that we have no easy way to measure progress in how Canadians view or understand the Israel/Palestine conflict, apart from anecdotal examples. I wish it were easier to do.

  2. Do not think that there is any contradiction here. Whether as a Zionist or non Zionist, and a Jew or non Jew, one can accept and support the existence of Israel and also be a strong and insistent supporter of Palestinian rights and a stern critic of israeli occupation and violations (settlements, imprisonment of children , home demoitons, blockades and everthing mentioned in the UNCHR Palestinian special rapporteur’s many reports.

    Above all, it is the goal of a solution to Palestine Israel conundrum that is important. The UN and all nation states and the broader international comuniy support a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state in Gaza and the West bank along the lines of the 1948 ceasefires standing side by side with Israel. Any action or speech in support of this goal cannot be regarded as anti semitic. BDS certainly meets this test by proposing a peaceful and non violent boycott aimed at ending the Israeli occupation, ending any discrimination against Israeli Palestinian Arabs and finding a solution to the legal “right of return of Palestinian refugees.

    It is clear that Israel is moving to the right and is now the main holdout and obstructor of such a “two state” solution because of its actions and statements more clearly opposing such a Palestinian state and refusal to negotiate on this basis (ie rejected Arab Saudi peace initiative and attempt now to undermine any negotiations with the joint PA Hamas government) and outlandish claims of the whole “land of Israel

    One need only to read the assessments of President Carter, who engineered the Egypt Israel Peace Treaty, and President Obama who made the last major American effort. Israel simply refused any concessions on security, control or settlements even when Jordan offered to allow israeli troops on its territory and UN international peacekeepers were proposed. All three of these American peacemakers (two having been awarded the Nobel Peace prize) have been called anti Israel and even antisemitic by adamant pro Israeli interests, except to date President Trump (although called anti semitic after Charlottesville for other reasons ) whose own peace initiative is now ongoing fitfully. And with dim hope.

    It is clear that debate over the nature and motivatons of antisemitism in the debate over Israel Palestine, such as the one that took place at McGill is less important than working for a common solution. One of the most constructive would be for Canada and Europe and all states who have not recognized the “State of Palestine” (more than 120 have including only Sweden from the west) to do so. This could change the dynamic of what the Special Rapporteur called a 50 yr. occupation that now should be considered illegal and ended asap. It would strengten and reinforce a “two state equal and satisfactory Israel Palestine solution.

  3. While I certainly agree with the assessment this student may have experienced/felt things were antisemitic I quite frankly have zero symparhy with it.

    Really Peter… nowhere in any of the postions espoused by zionists is there any recognition that Palestinians may experience zionism in the same way. Or that they even exist.

    Regardless of verbiage if you are philosemetic you are judged antisemitic. If you support any Palestinian rights you are antisemitic.

    To any who argue they don’t feel that way judt read the news and see the people vilified for merely saying Palestinians deserve an equal state.

    I feel sorry for the kids but it’s the supremacist ideology they’ve been indoctrinated with that causes their feelings of being threatened.

    If the concept of equality of humanity and of individuals together with fairness and justice then you are in the wrong. And it is not up to those you oppress, or those who support your victims, to make you feel good either in life or your beliefs. Grow a pair and do the right thing.

  4. Possibly it might be approaching the time when the scope of Zionism could be expanded. I believe that Islam, contary to fanatics, has anything but a patent on the Middle East. Zionism may become a banding together of forces that believe that every Indigenous culture in the ME is worthy of respect, and inclusion in all aspects of regional governance.

  5. The overall issue that drew so many into this battle for control of McGill has never been Zionism or an effort to block anyone be they Jewish, Arab or Irish separatist from participating in the university’s political life, as I see it.

    Instead the issue has been the treatment of Palestine and Palestinians by the ruling power players in Israel. The only issue that has been condemned through this rather tired ethnic battle here in Canada as been the Palestinian-backed BDS movement.

    Zionists have been loud and clear in attempting to stop BDS, just as BDS supporters have been as forceful in promoting BDS. Ironically, the Zionist opposition has, in my estimation only encouraged BDS through it’s over-the-top efforts to stop alleged “anti-Semitism” by trying to turn it into a domestic” issue here in Canada.

    A few avid young Zionists have been stopped through the democratic process from being elected to McGill’s student body, so of course it must be “anti-Semitism”, right?

    Reality, however, tells is these students didn’t make the grade for one reason, they were running for the McGill seats in an effort to battle the DBS movement that has obviously found common ground with a good many McGill students.

    One can only assume if a none-Jew, none-Zionist ran on the same anti-BDS platform, they too would not have been elected.

    The only question in my mind, however, is; mwould Zionists then claim that because these anti-DBS campaigners were defeated it was just another example of “anti-semitism”.

    If I sound cynical, so be it, because no matter what happens it seems any effort to promote efforts to help Palestinians here in Canada is immediately branded anti-Semitic .

    Perhaps what Canada needs are politicians who are willing to address the Palestinian/Israeli divide through full open and honest dialogue. To date about the deepest involvement Canadians have witnessed are Canadian politicians insisting on Israel’s “right to exist” yet none will extend that same “right” to Palestine.

  6. Very interesting Peter. There are also groups of US Jewish (and other) academics who are opposing efforts in the US Congress to conflate anti semitism and criiticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians and any charges of dual loyalty against US Jews lobbying for Israel. These same groups are also among the harshest critics of efforts in the US Senate led by Senator Schumer to criminalize any US iniividual or organizational support for BDS.

    Does anyone know whether Benjamin Netanyahu is an Amerian citizen and how many Americans might be living and working in “illegal” Israeli settlements in the ” occupied Palestinian territories” but are in receipt of USA consular assistance.” There are recent reports that USA has been holding out on a full visa waiver for Israel until US citizens of Palestinian origin are given the same rights to enter Israel through Ben Gurion airport (instead of being relegated for alleged security reasons to the Allenby crossing from Jordan) as are all other American visitors whether Jewish or non Jewish. Speaking of entry to Israel and Palestine, incidences are increasing of supporters of BDS being denied entry at Ben Gurion airport including members of US Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP has a campaign against US B’nai Brith Anti Defamation league for sponsoring exchanges between Israeli and US police to handle particular “minority problems” including terrorism) and European politicians on their way to see Margout Bhargwati serving 5 life sentences in an Israeli prison.

    Some among these US Jewish and non Jewish pro Palestinian rights groups have proposed US sanctions (in lieu of or in addition to BDS ) against Israeli cabinet ministers who have absolutely rejected a two state Israel Palestine solution as undermining US foreign policy. This includes the Obama Kerry peace efforts on which both US officials have been very clear about Israeli’ responsibility for its failure in words and in the abstention on UNSC resolution 2334 which is now international law defining a Israel Pal settlement.
    It remains to be seen whether such “intrangience” would srifle the efforts of Trump and Kushner to bring a final and just peace to Israel and Palestine.

    All of these references and infighting on Israel Palestine might also apply to Canada except at a less crucial dimension. Indeed Canada has done nothing to support its own stated policy on Israel Palestine which is consistent with UNSCR 2334 nor to take any initiatives towards a solution of two equal and sovereign states with the exception of restoring some funding to UNRWA for Palestinian refugees. Former PM Chretien recalled at a recent event at Global Affairs that he had maintained a balanced Canadian policy on Israel Palestine against considerable pressure from “special interests” including through and after the tumultuous times of his “easy” decision not to enter the second Iraq war and before that the Madrid peace process and Oslo accords after the first Gilf war where Canada did play a role on aid and security and chaired the Refugee Working Group.
    He strongly regretted that Harper had vacated this balanced policy in unconditional support for Israel and that the new Trudeau govt had not really given voice or action on the Israel Palestine question

    Maybe a suggestion to move beyond blockage and internal recrimination would be for Canada to lead a campaign to have all remaining mainly western countries recognize the “State of Palestine” (along with the “State of Israel.”) ; about 120 have already done so but Sweden is the only western country to take this position. No less an expert than Professor Gershon Shafir (author of a “A Half Century of Occupation”) agreed that this would be a means to move the ball forward on Israel Palestine in a way consistent with international law and consensus and make it clear that a “two state” resolution is stil possible.He did not discount the economic and aid pressure on Palestine against such recognition, but it has not stopped Palestine’s entry into UN agencies like UNESCO, the International Criminal Court, Interpol etc. At a time of fifty years of “legal” temporary occupation (with many illegal elements) certainly it is time as the Special Rapporteur for Palestine” Canadian Michael Lyne has said to consider whether the “occupation” is now illegal and to end it asap and at all costs. Recognition of and support for the “State of Palestine” might just help to get Canada back on the UNSecurity Council.

    Gerge Jacoby

  7. France provides a pretty good model here. There was a similar discussion about BDS / anti-Zionism being distinct from antisemitism. Public school attendance among Jewish students is now below 1/3rd and there has been a steady migration out of the country for two decades. So the question is if the environment is so hostile to Jews that they are voluntarily isolating themselves and fleeing the country in noticeable numbers is that Antisemitism? Certainly one can make the case it isn’t based on the idea there is a distinction in intent. Others would say if the effects are identical to race hatred that claims of distinct intent don’t matter. Obviously the situation is nowhere near as bad in Canada as it was in France a decade ago or even today.

    But the dynamics are the same. The ability of McGill students to make life miserable for Jews attending McGill far exceeds their ability to change Israeli policy. Israel doesn’t have strong ties to McGill, Canadian Jews do. Even as anti-Zionists have cleared about 40 countries of their domestic Jewish population there is little evidence of them having much impact on Israeli policy. What this issue does prove is that Canadian anti-Zionism mostly is unable to do anything to Israel, so it ends up focusing its fire on the domestic Jewish population and it is probably a good idea that Jewish students learn this. Even at McGill though I’m not that worried. McGill is something like 10% Jewish. I suspect this whole issue gets solved through a large backlash at the political level in the next set of elections. Canada unlike France has a large pro-Zionist community.

    What I do find odd though is how the BDSers can even believe this works. It is certainly not clear to me to what extent rising hostility towards Canadian Jews is a negative for Israel. Obviously Israel likes its trade and business relations with Canada but it would also like to see the 400k Canadian Jews leave Canada for Israel or even just the 95k in Quebec. Canada thinks of itself as a place minorities flee to not from. Much more than France, Canadians would be horrified at a group driving French Jews out. Once there is emigration because of BDS, BDS get a lot less popular very fast. Israel benefits from the immigration financially while Zionism benefits ideologically.

    Also in terms of cards, Canadian Jews unlike French Jews have lot of strong ties to the much larger and much more powerful American Jewish community which they can draw on for support. So all told I think this whole thing blows up on the BDS students. Whether it is legitimate or not to take students off the student council for “Zionism” it was still dumb lashing out rather than a strategic act.

    1. Hey CD Host
      I don’t see any “rising hostility” toward Canadian Jews from any of the people I associate with.

      I would strenuously oppose any manifestation of anti-Semitism. It is a form of racism that has no place in Canada.

      I do find that sometimes the language used by university students (on many issues, including this one, and on both sides) is intemperate and unhelpful. CTIP’s motto is “raise the issue and lower the temperature”.

      I made the argument in my column that many Canadians (Jews and non-Jews) still believe that the best protection for Jews lies in having a Jewish state. CTIP does not share that view, of course. We think the best protection for Jews is the same as the way to protect gays, Muslims, blacks, aboriginals or any other minority – public education backed up by strong laws.

      And the best way to move forward on that front is to encourage an open and frank discussion on the topic.

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