February of this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government endorsed a motion put forth by the Conservatives which condemns the BDS movement (boycotts, divestments and sanctions against the state of Israel). When Parliament voted, the motion passed by a landslide, with 229 votes in favour and 51 against.
Meanwhile, the McGill University general assembly was having a vote of its own regarding BDS, only with emphatically different results. BDS McGill, a grassroots student movement put forth a motion in favour of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel; surprisingly winning by a margin of 512 to 357. The unexpected result of the McGill G.A. vote had MPs taking to social media to reach out to students before the motion could be ratified through an online student vote. Anthony Housefather, a Liberal MP in the Mount Royal riding tweeted: “To students [at McGill]. Please vote NO to BDS on Monday! Join Marc Miller, Michael Levitt, David Lametti, Nick Whalen and me in opposing BDS.” Prime Minister Trudeau, a McGill alumnus himself, wrote on social media that BDS “has no place on Canadian campuses.”
Even the media had a disdainful reaction to the GA’s vote. Gazette columnist Karen Seidman released an article where she called the motion “divisive” and claims it “consistently sparks heated rhetoric […] and raises tension on campus”.
It’s hard to argue against Seidman, as any motion can be seen as “divisive”, but that is neither here nor there. Her points are justified, as at least ten Zionist McGill students have allegedly sought counselling in light of this motion, according to a “No” side campaigner.
For one student, he too felt the divisive and reactionary ramifications of such a motion, but for reasons different than Karen Seidman, Anthony Housefather or Prime Minister Trudeau may suppose.
Sam Hersh is a 22-year-old Jewish student in his third year at McGill, and is regularly involved with movements in and out of the university. Any friend of his knows how outspoken, passionate – perhaps even stubborn – he is when it comes to his political views. He bleeds orange for the NDP, volunteers with Fair Vote Canada, and boycotts Uber in solidarity with taxi drivers. These are positions he makes no point of hiding. But when it comes to BDS, Hersh is reluctant to publicize his opinions.
Through NDP McGill’s endorsement, he became involved with BDS; voting in favor at the GA, and by helping spread the word around campus. However, he never liked any of the BDS pages or posts on Facebook knowing that it would spur some chatter amongst his Jewish friends. “I was afraid to publicize my involvement. In the past, I had clicked “attending” on Facebook and other Jews would interrogate me, [asking] if I hate Israel. Most people don’t know – in terms of Jewish friends,” admitted Hersh.
Curiosity among fellow Jews is not by any stretch of the imagination divisive or tense. It’s an understandable and reasonable reaction. However, as more and more people in his immediate circle began to hear the gossip, the curiosity turned into belligerence.
“I tried to hide it for a while, because I knew my parents wouldn’t like it. But [when they found out], they weren’t too kind. My mom said she felt sick to her stomach, my dad called me a fucking idiot,” he said. “I’ve been called a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite, all the things you can think of. Online and at school, other Jews involved in BDS are getting called these things as well. It’s pretty demoralizing.”
By equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, Hersh’s detractors are now embracing all of the intolerance and divisiveness which they claim to condemn. By virtue of their stance on this issue, Hersh, and other McGill Jews in favour of BDS, have become the victims of alienation, rather than the inciters.
Where did this reactionary, antagonistic and hostile response come from? Hersh would say it comes from the upbringing within his community. “I don’t mean to be condescending, but I grew up in a largely Jewish community where a lot of people don’t critically engage with that issue; they just take what they get. You learn in Hebrew school that Israel is the be-all-end-all, — it’s kind of indoctrinating.”
Despite the backlash he received, Hersh remained confident and proud of his stance, and he attributes much of this to other Jews who share his opinion. Reading the McGill Daily last year, he came across an article written by anti-Zionist Jewish students who host Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. The space allowed McGill Jews to form a community with other compatriots who have grappled with the same issue. “It was very encouraging to hear [that] there are other people who share the same opinion as me – who are Jewish,” he acknowledged. “It’s harder to have this opinion when you’re a Jew because you have to figure it out for yourself; You have to get out of this mindset. If you aren’t Jewish, you didn’t have that kind of upbringing.” He even went as far as saying that it is similar to the coming-out process of a closeted LGBT, in that you have to come out to a community which (for the most part) will not approve. “It’s like figuring out you’re gay when you’re surrounded by the straight culture. And I don’t want to equate myself to the same oppression and hardship that they go through, because I haven’t at all, but you do feel like there’s a culture around you that you don’t associate with.”
His story is an example of how often times, those who seek to end prejudices and alienation often become the distributors. Ultimately, Trudeau and every Liberal MP who claim that BDS is divisive are right. But divisiveness is intrinsic to any democratic process. Anytime there is a vote, a referendum, or an election, you begin to categorically alienate groups of people. Democracy is about embracing and discussing our differences, not eliminating them. By equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, Trudeau opened the flood gates for these leaps of faith. Those who pointed the finger at Sam Hersh for being a persecutor became the persecutors themselves.
Written By: Giulio Evangelista