“Viva, viva intifada!” The chant filled the atrium and echoed back through bullhorns outside. Waving Palestinian flags and wearing black and white keffiyah scarves, 600 students had converged on the building to vent their hostility toward Israel and its citizens. The second Palestinian terror campaign may have ended in 2005, but at Toronto’s York University, it is alive and well.
In a half-full lecture hall deeper inside Vari Hall, five former Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were giving a presentation. The group, Reservists on Duty, speaks at college campuses around North America to combat antisemitism and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“The protest lasted three hours,” says fourth-year student Lauren Isaacs, who organized the soldiers’ event for Herut Canada, a Zionist student club. “They were banging on the walls.”
Despite several interruptions from protestors in the room, the event continued. Afterwards, the soldiers, Isaacs, and the attendees were escorted by police out the back door. There had been violence, later attributed to outside groups. One person was injured.
The protest, which took place on November 20, made international news and elicited tweets of outrage from government officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford. The York administration released statement after statement, asserting “zero tolerance for hate,” establishing freedom of speech “working groups,” and initiating an internal investigation. But the situation only seemed to get worse.
A week later, on November 28, the York Federation of Students passed a motion entitled “Fighting Imperialist Propaganda on Our Campuses.” It promised to prevent “representatives of the Israeli State” from speaking at the school, using its “multi-million dollar apparatus” to organize resistance. Since all York student groups operate under the federation, the motion effectively barred any Israeli from speaking on campus.
A History of Incidents
York’s 3,500 Jewish students braced for another wave of controversy and media attention. The group that organized the protest, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), has been suspended by the administration twice before: in 2013, for staging a protest that disrupted classes, and in 2009, for effectively barricading Jewish students in the Hillel building while chanting anti-Israel and antisemitic slogans. But SAIA, one of the most active student groups on campus, was always reinstated.
“SAIA is notorious for making Jewish students uncomfortable,” says RacheI, a second-year student who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t feel like I’m being protected by the administration. There have been all of these incidents. And the university has done nothing about it.”
Rachel, who is involved in Israel advocacy through Hillel, recalled a meeting with York president Rhonda Lenton: “It seemed like she herself wasn’t sure what to do. But if you’re the head of the university and you can’t do something, there’s a problem.”
When Free Speech Is Hate Speech
On December 11, in the midst of York’s troubles, President Trump signed an executive order intended to address what has become an epidemic of antisemitic incidents on campuses across the country. (A 2017 report by Tel Aviv University called American campuses “hotbeds of antisemitism”). The order, which classifies antisemitism as a civil rights violation, brought new attention to the churning debate at universities where administrators are struggling to protect both freedom of expression, and their students.
Joanne Vogel is Deputy Vice President of Student Services at Arizona State University, where a rash of antisemitic incidents, including a protest eerily similar to the one at York, shook the Jewish community last year. “Hate speech is protected speech and makes balancing individual rights with the effects on the community very challenging,” she shared with Lubavitch International. “Nevertheless, more dialogue is the only effective way forward.”
But to Jewish students, there is a terrifying gap between “dialogue” and safety. At York, ASU, and many other schools, Chabad representatives stepped in to help fill the void, building relationships, working with administrators, and empowering Jewish students to make their voices heard.
A Light on Campus
York students have always been politically active, Rabbi Vidal Bekerman told me, perhaps a residual effect of the school’s early years as a liberal arts college. However, Israel was not a hot issue in the late ‘90s, when Rabbi Bekerman himself was an education student at York. A year on exchange at Hebrew University sparked his interest in Judaism, and, after a brief stint in law school, he found his way to a Chabad yeshivah in Morristown, New Jersey.
In 2006, he and his wife, Chana Leah, also a York alumna, returned to the campus to open the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Centre. Chana Leah says that the couple’s ability to relate to the experience of present-day students has become an invaluable asset: “Their growth, their process, their journey. We were there.”
It also gives them a granular understanding of how the university functions. “I’ve seen it over a twenty-five-year period,” Rabbi Bekerman says. “I get the student population. I get the culture.” And he understands why it’s so hard for the administration to change the environment of hostility toward Israel on campus. The York Federation of Students is separately incorporated, essentially independent of the administration, he told me, with, indeed, its own multi-million dollar budget. “They’ve adopted all kinds of anti-Israel resolutions. BDS is part of their platform.”
In general, the Bekermans have elected to remain apolitical. “Our rock is the Torah. Our rock is the Rebbe,” Chana Leah says. “And the Rebbe’s position is to be a light on campus.”
In that capacity, the couple takes every opportunity to educate the student body about Jews and Judaism. Professor Randal Schnoor, who teaches Jewish studies, including a course on antisemitism and islamophobia in Canada, has invited them to speak to his students several times. “The Bekermans are doing outstanding work for Jewish students on campus,” he wrote in an email. “They have the ability to connect very well with Jewish students from all backgrounds (as well as non-Jewish students). We are lucky to have them at York to share their passion for Jewish life.”
The couple also makes their presence felt by “tabling” regularly on the main campus thoroughfare, sometimes with a picture of the Kotel, the Western Wall, behind them. The prop is not intended as a political statement, just a reminder to York’s Jews of their rich history and heritage. The Chabad table will be appearing more often in the spring semester, Chana Leah says. The goal is simply “to be present. We feel the students need it more than ever.”
Not infrequently, members of pro-Palestinian groups stop to ask questions. The conversations are always civil, but sitting at the table can be an uncomfortable experience. “I’m a little nervous every time,” says a third-year student active in the Chabad student club. Gedaliah, as she asked to be called, is about to complete her degree in Human Rights. After graduation, she wants to get a job fighting antisemitism on campus, a decision she made while at York. “I want Jewish students to feel safe.”
The Bekermans have created a haven for students like her to express themselves Jewishly, she says. “The first time I went, I thought, this is not my place. And then the attack in Pittsburgh happens. And I just started going more. I go for the community. The Bekermans are my family.”
Love Not Hate
At ASU, it started with the posters. In early November, a flyer mysteriously appeared on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus bearing the words “Love Not Hate.” The “o” of “love” was replaced with a swastika, the “a” of “hate” with a Jewish star.
“That was a turning point,” recalls Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel, a Chabad representative at ASU for sixteen years. “I never saw anything like it.” The laid-back atmosphere at America’s largest university had always been hospitable to Jewish students. In fact, the administration had recently started a kosher meal plan, at considerable expense. The rabbi quotes ASU’s charter: “a university measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes.”
But in the fall of 2019, things seemed to be changing, senior David Magat told me. Soon after the posters, “there was a letter to the editor in the State Press [ASU’s student paper], calling for BDS and a boycott of every Israel club.” Magat, who runs the student group affiliated with AIPAC, says the effect was instantaneous. “Jewish students felt scared.”
Then came the protest. On November 13, Rabbi Tiechtel had arranged for two Israeli soldiers, who were wounded in action, to speak on campus through Lev Echad, an Israeli Chabad center in New York City. When he arrived at the event with the soldiers, however, they found that a pro-Palestinian group had staged a sit-in, complete with “Viva intifada” signs. The soldiers moved to a different room, but the protestors followed, banging on the door.
“Seeing those signs promoting the intifada, that really hit home for me,” says Neta Galili, who immigrated to the U.S. from Israel with her family when she was fourteen. “I wanted to go up to them and say, ‘I don’t know if you know what the intifada is, but my sister served in the military during the intifada.”
Galili, who graduated in December with a degree in finance and accounting, recalled her first semester on campus. Feeling lonely and overwhelmed, she accompanied a friend to a sukkah party at Chabad. “As soon as I came in, a guy came up to me and started speaking to me in Hebrew with a big smile. That was Rabbi Shmuel. I was introduced to more people, and today I call them my brothers and my sisters.”
Four years later, when ASU’s student senate debated passing a BDS resolution, Galili—by then a leader in the Chabad student group—was among the many Jewish students who turned out to oppose it. Afterward, she strode to the front of the room to confront the motion’s sponsor. “I explained to him my family’s history,” she says. “As an Israeli student, BDS is a boycott of me.”
A Different Response
While the incidents at ASU followed a similar pattern to those at other schools, the response of the administration was markedly different. As soon as the posters appeared, Rabbi Tiechtel reached out to the administration. They got back to him immediately, promising to take the posters down and asking him to keep in touch, he says. “They gave me their cell phone numbers.”
After the protest, the dean of students announced that she would meet with anyone in the university community who wanted to express their concerns about the situation. The invitation was accepted by many Jewish students, several of whom asked the rabbi to accompany them. Deputy Vice President Vogel was present in those meetings as well. “Rabbi Tiechtel amplified the voice of Jewish students and stood in solidarity with them,” she wrote in an email.
Thanks to lobbying by Magat’s group and others, the BDS motion did not pass. Instead, on December 3, sophomore student senator Megan Hall put forward a “Resolution to stand with Jewish students at ASU.” It was passed by acclamation (unanimously). Afterwards, Hall and the dean of students attended a Shabbat dinner at Chabad.
When classes resumed in January, York was still grappling with the events of the previous semester. After first suspending and then reinstating both SAIA and Herut, the administration has arranged for an external investigation into the events of November 20 and the university’s policies governing freedom of speech.
The Bekermans are not waiting for the results. On January 24, they organized a grand “Jewnity Shabbat” cosponsored by Aish Toronto, Hillel, and Ohr Sameach. Over 200 people attended the event, held in Toronto’s Sephardic Kehila Centre, Gedaliah told me. “There was a lot of unity and love. It showed that no matter what happens, no matter what our ideologies are, we’re all one.”Friday evening services were held in the Centre’s beautiful sanctuary: “Everyone was singing Lecha Dodi, and I had never heard that tune before,” she says. The women began dancing in a circle first, then the men. “In that one instant, we all forgot our problems. And we were just there, present.”