Shame! The McGill BDS vote

By Beryl Wajsman on February 24, 2016

Don't let the title of this fool you. It is not on McGill that I heap the scorn of shame. It is on the apathy of the Jewish students and of the Jewish community. 

I have never regretted choosing a life of social activism and advocacy journalism. With all of its moral and material frustrations, there is so much good that has been accomplished. So much justice attained. Whenever I am introduced, most hosts lead with the fact that I am a recipient of a Martin Luther King, Jr. award for the promotion of human dignity. For in the final analysis that is what the struggle is about. Dignity.

But I have never failed to be disappointed by one thing. I always expected people to become bolder, braver and more filled with dignity and self-worth. Yet that has not always happened. And when it does not, my heart is always filled with pain and my soul with rage.

Such were my feelings yesterday when I saw the BDS motion by the McGill Students Society succeed by a vote of 512-327. I will not go into the BDS lies here today. We covered the subject thoroughly in our editorial last week. Our title said it all. "Silence is tacit approval! Speak up!" In a university with the 26th largest Jewish student body of North American schools, the silence of those students - and the failure of their community to rally resolve - made them complicit in the success of this egregious lie.

No one should be comforted by the fact that yesterday also saw the House of Commons approve an anti-BDS resolution. No one should be comforted by the fact that the turnout was so small. No one should be comforted that the McGill Student Society vote has no legal weight. The reality is that in the optics of the free battleground of ideas, evil won. And its propaganda value will be exploited for all its worth.

The solution to combatting this evil is not more evil. It does not lie in curtailing free speech, no matter how odious. It does not lie in punishing the university, although it would be reasonable for donors to question why their donations should go to fund a student society whose heavily subsidized members not only cannot tell right from wrong, but have not been told by McGill that they do not get to bite the hand that feeds them.

No, the solution to combatting this bodyguard of lies is within the Jewish community itself. Has it produced a generation of privileged children who are taught the price of everything but the value of nothing? A community with a broad and respected system of elementary and secondary schools that seems to have instilled in its students all the tools for passing the exams of the state, but none of the courage for passing the tests of life. A community with an enviable fundraising, lobbying and social service apparatus that completely failed to spark in the people it serves what King called,"The fierce urgency of now!" Nor even to make them fully comprehend another of his lessons that, "When someone criticizes Zionists they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism." Or is the community's must effective talent reserved only for the two months of its financial campaign?

The Jewish community can be rightly proud of its institutions. Of its hospitals and social agencies. But to use a talmudic metaphor, those matters take care of the body. What of the spirit? What agency is there that can instill in its young people some nobility of purpose? Some measure of responsibility to bear witness to their own self-worth - as Canadians as much as Jews - by standing up for a sister democracy under attack from the most venal tyrannies? Who will explain to them that apathy is not an option and their lethargy will not take them out of the line of fire?

The Jewish struggle has always been the mirror of all of mankind's transcendent yearnings for redemptive change. The Jewish people rose as a phoenix after the Holocaust and not only built the Middle East's only democracy, but marched for human rights from Soweto to Selma and beyond. McGill's Jewish students don't seem to have learned that. So let me end with a personal story. In the late 70s I was a law student at McGill and president of Hillel, the Jewish Students Society. There was no contradiction between that and my anti-poverty and anti-racism activism with other communities because we Jews were in the vanguard of those struggles.

My friends and I did not have the privileges of today's young Jews. Most of us were products of public schools. And most of us worked our way through university. But we were instilled with a confidence and pride in our abilities and our heritage. In the face of prejudice and quotas, we did overcome. Because we would not compromise who we were. We did not hide. So when news came out that Canada was to host a UN Conference to which Yasser Arafat and the PLO were to be invited, some one hundred of us fanned out in then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's riding of Mount Royal. In six days we collected almost 25,000 signatures - a quarter of the riding - urging Mr. Trudeau not to allow the PLO in. Four days after his administrative assistant wrote me acknowledging that our petition was under study, the front pages of Canada's major dailies blared out headlines that the Conference had been cancelled at Canada's request.

No, ours was not the only such initiative. But it was the only one from Montreal. And who knows  what titled the decision. The point is we acted! We did not remain silent. We kept the faith of those who were martyred before us. And we kept the flame of justice burning a bit brighter. What good is it if today's young Jews get good jobs and go along to get along? Does that really meet their duty? And can the Jewish community feel satisfied that it is not manifesting the full measure of its citizenship?

It is time that Montreal's young Jews learn an additional lesson. A lesson for all people, in all struggles, at all times and in all places. A lesson of hope brought by a young Bobby Kennedy to the people of Soweto, victims of a true apartheid state. He said on a sweltering day, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." This is the solution to combatting evil. These are the tools necessary to pass the tests of life. We can only hope that the young Jews of McGill who stayed silent, and the community of which they are a part, rediscover the "energy and daring" of our recent past and that we all become part of those "tiny ripples of hope."

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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