Boycott movement (illustration)
Boycott movement (illustration)Reuters

Anti-Israel students disrupted a pre-Hanukkah get-together sponsored by Hillel at York University. The disruption was caused when the students, supporters of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) protested during the Jewish, yet non-Israel related celebration.

As Jewish students gathered at a Hanukkah photo booth in Vari Link hall on Dec. 3, protesters attending a York University Divest silent protest, tens of meters away approached the Hillel display and began chanting anti-Israel slogans.

The pro-Arab faction was also seen handing out anti-Israel brochures and leaflets before the Hillel event formally kicked off.

Anna Baev, head of the Hillel on campus for York University explained how the events transpired. “We had students come up to us expressing their frustration that a protest was happening and that it created a negative atmosphere for the students.”

Baev is also the director of Jewski, an outreach program to Russian Jews. “They felt it was ruining the overall environment on campus.”

The pre-Hanukkah event featured various props and paraphernalia associated with the holiday. Students took pictures in a photo booth that was set up for the occasion. Hillel student leaders visiting Israeli emissaries were on hand to field questions about the holiday for the uninformed. According to Baev, over 400 students participated in the two-day event, many of whom were not Jewish. 

Hillel expressed their dismay at the protest on their Facebook page. “What was planned as a silent protest turned into chants and the blocking of the hallways. While Hillel prides itself on promoting respectful discourse on all campuses, we find tactics of harassment and intimidation to be intolerable.”

The organization later added: “We would like to clarify that the demonstrators were not protesting the photo booth itself. The protest was an unrelated event that took place nearby.”

Director of media relations at York University, Joanne Rider, went on record as saying “we are in the process of reviewing video footage and soliciting feedback from staff members who were present.”

“YU Divest, a group with members from various clubs and organizations, held a silent protest in Vari Hall on that day. The table booked by Hillel was located in the Ross Link.  Hillel members were advised in advance by York staff that YU Divest was tabling in the adjacent space and they agreed to be in the link which is a distance from Vari Hall,” Rider said.   

The Vice Provost of students, Janet Morrison, said that so far the University has not received any formal complaints from any student stating that a student felt threatened. In a formal statement the Provost said: “York University is committed to freedom of expression and takes proactive measures to help ensure a safe and inclusive environment free from discrimination and harassment.”

Hillel’s mandate on campus is create a visible presence, present Jewish programming and enhance Jewish life. Despite the disruption, said Baev “we consider our event a success.The disruption while not to be minimized, had little or no effect on our event even though some media outlets have made it seem like a full blown crisis." Baev expressed some frustration at social-media for sensationalizing events. " Incidents which are few and far in-between are splashed and sensationalized all over social media; they distract focus from all of the positive activities that our Hillel community is experiencing on campus." 

Baev doubly expressed Hillel's concern over the safety of all Jewish students on campus. 

"The safety and security of Jewish students has always been and always will be Hillel’s primary concern. We will continue to provide Jewish students a safe space on campus where they can explore and celebrate their Judaism. Likewise, we will continue to engage and educate the broader campus community about Israel, and combat anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it manifests." 

Baev added that "Hillel York facilitates and nurtures a vibrant and positive Jewish community at York University. Because we are on campus every day, we are also able to monitor and look after the safety and security of the Jewish student population on campus."

York University has the second largest number of Jews of any University in Ontario behind McMaster, and is third in Canada, after McMaster and McGill. It ranks 22nd overall of public Universities in North America in the number of Jewish students.