It is the season of new beginnings: new school year, newly turning leaves and a new Jewish year. On a leisurely drive on Labour Day Monday in suburban Vancouver, bright orange pumpkins that weren’t there last time we passed had suddenly exploded into full-sized squash seemingly overnight. Summer, of course, is officially with us until Sept. 23, but, especially if your household has kids (or teachers), summer unofficially ended when the first school bell rang on Tuesday.
This is the time of year for reflecting back and looking forward. The promise and excitement of the new mixes with nostalgia and other emotions about the passage of time and memories – good or bad – of what we leave behind.
This coming Monday, we will hear from four speakers at FEDtalks, the launch of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign. Among them is Isaac Herzog, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel who (in last week’s Independent) acknowledged that one of the challenges our global Jewish community faces is engaging and involving young Jewish people. As students return to post-secondary campuses in British Columbia, across Canada and around the world, we can anticipate the usual challenges – some years better or worse than others – of campaigns, referenda and assorted political shenanigans that have particular impacts on Jewish students.
Understandably, young people who have grown up with connections to Judaism, Jewish peoplehood and Israel will take exception to some of the things they will face. Some will rise admirably in these encounters, as we have seen year after year, when students at Hillel, Chabad and some ad hoc Jewish and Zionist organizations have spoken out against misleading and false expressions on their campuses. Others, also understandably, will avoid such unpleasant controversies and focus on less polarized topics and activities. Those who take up the frontlines in these battles deserve our community’s support.
There are broader issues than Zionism on campus. Free expression is top of mind for many professors, students, parents and other interested parties. A particular flare-up over the summer involved the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS), which puts on the city’s largest annual event, banning the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Public Library from participating in the Pride parade because they both provided space for presentations by speakers who are virulently vocal against the rights of transgender people. It was a rock and a hard place for many. The Pride society certainly has the right to welcome or exclude anyone they choose (although the amount of public funding and in-kind support they receive should require a degree of public accountability). But, seeing the province’s largest university and largest library system excluded from any event, for whatever reason, is upsetting. If ideas, however odious, cannot be discussed on a university campus or at a library, they cannot be openly discussed anywhere. Driving ugly ideas underground is not a solution. The answer to hate speech is anti-hate speech. And if, as critics said, the messages of the speakers were so insidious that they could lead to violence, then that was a job for the RCMP to confront, not, perhaps, the VPS.
A 2017 poll indicated that 69% of American students say that conservatives can “freely and openly” express their views on campuses, while 92% say the same about liberals. What the poll indicates, probably, is that being a conservative on campus today is more unpopular than being a liberal. Likewise, it is probably easier on most campuses to speak against Israel rather than for Israel. But does this mean an individual’s rights are being infringed? Unless there is a systematic and official injunction against the ideas someone expresses, the issue is probably not the right to speak freely and openly, but the courage and, not inconsequently, the privilege to do so.
Pro-Israel students have demonstrated courage in defending Israel against bad-faith campaigns and insinuations. In a significant number of cases, it has resulted in young adults who have become masters of community organizing and experts in responding to attacks – and, if they were not natural leaders before, they have developed skills that will advance them throughout their lives. Our instincts, as their elders, may be to shield them from the sometimes hateful ideas they will encounter. Instead, we should be supporting and encouraging them in confronting and contesting these ideas.
To all who are embarking on new adventures – and, especially at this time of year, aren’t all of us in some way? – may we be strengthened by courage, determination and the support of one another.