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November 21, 2003

Jews at Langara resist

Israeli guest rebuked, Zionism called "apartheid."

Jewish students at Langara College are demanding answers after the student government forbade a pro-Israel guest from speaking, just days after the college hosted a presentation titled Why Israel is an Apartheid State.

The community college on Vancouver's West 49th Avenue had not been a hot spot in the tensions that have developed on campuses across Canada in the past couple of years, but recent events suggest that Langara is a new front in the war of words over the Middle East.

The controversy began when members of the college's new Israel Advocacy Club tried to book a room in the Langara student union building and were refused. Kinney Butterfield, president and one of the founders of the Israel Advocacy Club, said she made the requisite presentation to the Langara Student Union (LSU) officials, explaining the nature of the presentation to be made by Ishmael Khaldi, an Israeli Bedouin who speaks about multiculturalism in Israel. The LSU, Langara's elected student government, controls the student union building where such events usually take place.

Student union officials refused to grant the club space in the building on the basis that Khaldi had served in the Israeli military. Butterfield pointed out that such a precedent would effectively ban any Israeli citizen from speaking on Langara's campus, since Israel has mandatory military service. Butterfield said she was told Israelis could speak if they renounced their past affiliations with the IDF.

Langara Student Union officials did not respond to several interview requests from the Bulletin, but a college administration official expressed concern about the incident and a meeting may be set up between college officials and Jewish students to discuss the atmosphere on campus. The official stressed that the college has no authority over LSU or its activities.

In the end, Khaldi was able to speak on campus because a sympathetic faculty member booked a room on behalf of the club – in the college, not in the student-run union building.

Butterfield, along with Robert Morison, another founder of the Israel Advocacy Club, said they have experienced discrimination and intimidation on campus. Because the LSU controls almost all of the public bulletin boards on campus, the Israel Advocacy Club has been unable to advertise some of their events, leaving the handful of active members to hand-distribute notices. When they have been granted permission to post notices, Butterfield said, they were subjected to ridicule by LSU officials. Any poster affixed to an LSU bulletin board must be approved by an LSU official. Butterfield said that when LSU has approved postings, they have often done so accompanied by disparaging comments, such as implying that the posters were lies.

Butterfield and Morrison also say they were intimidated by another student who boarded their bus. Apparently because Morrison and Butterfield have "We stand with Israel" buttons on their backpacks, Butterfield said the other student took a button reading "Globalize the intifada" off his own backpack, placed it on his shirt and stared menacingly at them.

The booking dispute seems likely to be the beginning, not the end, of problems on the college campus, but Jewish students are better prepared this year than last to respond to discrimination or harassment on campus.

As a result of deep divisions on Canadian campuses, including violent clashes at Montreal's Concordia University, national Jewish organizations and individual donors have made funds available to Jewish campus groups like Hillel, which operates primarily out of the University of British Columbia campus.

Eyal Lichtmann, director of Hillel Vancouver, said the Langara occurrence is a worrisome development on a campus where little conflict was reported before.

"What we have at Langara now is what we have at SFU," said Lichtmann, referring to the Simon Fraser University campus, which had been criticized as increasingly inhospitable to Jewish students last year, due to a series of hostile anti-Israeli newspaper articles and events. A less hostile student government was elected this year. After a successful Israel Week at both Simon Fraser and UBC last year, Jewish students on those campuses were encouraged by the response they received from fellow students. Perhaps because of the increased activism of Hillel, anti-Israel activism has moved out from the larger university campuses into smaller community colleges. Lichtmann speculates this may be a strategy based on the assumption that there are fewer Jewish students at smaller institutions. Lichtmann thinks the strong response launched by Butterfield, Morrison and their club took the anti-Israel activists by surprise.

"They didn't expect us to organize there," he said.

Lichtmann commended the Langara Israel Advocacy Club members for what he called their mature, responsible approach to the difficulties. He also insisted that Jewish and other Zionist students have been able to respond to such incidents with greater strength because of additional funding Hillel Vancouver received in the past year, which has permitted the creation of two new staff positions, including an outreach co-ordinator and a director of Israel affairs.

Under a surprising new deal reached last month, the structure of Canada's national Jewish organizations will be massively altered and a new Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) has been created. Part of the impetus for the reorganization was a feeling that more advocacy needed to be done across Canada, but a significant part of the new structure is aimed directly at advocacy on campuses, where some of the most alarming anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric is heard.

Pat Johnson is a native Vancouverite, a journalist and commentator.