Votes were tallied late Friday, April 7, for the referendum on the University of British Columbia campus, wherein students were asked if they supported their union in a BDS campaign – and the answer was no. The “no” vote numbered 1,513 while 1,396 students voted “yes” to “boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians.”
It was the second time in two years that a BDS referendum on campus was defeated and Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, said he was thrilled. “In all honesty, this referendum is nothing more than a call for the elimination of the state of Israel,” he noted. “We had students from all over the university, Jewish and non-Jewish, join in the fight against this, and what’s important is that this was a clearly made statement.”
Bregman said the “yes” side had started out with 1,000 votes in their pocket because they had needed 1,000 signatures to make the referendum possible in the first place. “In the final analysis, they didn’t have enough votes, and they didn’t make quorum because only 5.5% of the students voted. In order for the referendum to pass, they needed votes from eight percent of the student body, over 4,300 votes in their favour, and they had to beat the ‘no’ side,” he explained. “They got neither.”
Stephen Gaerber, board chair of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, praised the work of Hillel BC, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and StandWithUs Canada. “Kol hakavod to the students and student leaders who worked so hard to make the truth evident to the student body and achieve this positive outcome,” he said in a press release issued April 9. “Their efforts were instrumental in helping maintain a welcoming and inclusive campus environment for everyone.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net. This article was originally published by CJN.
Last week, the B.C. Supreme Court rejected a petition to stop the University of British Columbia’s Alma Mater Society from holding a referendum April 3-7. The question being posed in the referendum is the same one the AMS asked of students in 2015: “Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?”
The question was brought to the AMS by the UBC branch of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), which collected the required number of signatures to have a referendum that was initially scheduled to take place in March. It was postponed when UBC third-year commerce student Logan Presch filed a petition against it. He and his legal representation secured a court order that resulted in the referendum’s delay.
Presch’s petition stated the proposed question “is divisive, creates a toxic atmosphere for students supportive of the state of Israel, and is destructive of open and respectful debate on an important issue.” It also raised safety concerns, he said, noting the 2015 referendum “drove a wedge between religious groups on campus who had previously enjoyed interfaith outreach and collaboration. Students outwardly opposed to the [referendum] encountered a hostile reaction and there were reported acts of antisemitism on campus.”
In an affidavit, Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, recalled that, at that time, anti-BDS lawn signs at UBC were pulled down. He also cited a climate of “a lack of personal security that many Jewish students experience on campus that is exacerbated by referenda such as the proposed question. There is an important line between robust political discourse and circumstances where I am compelled to deal with the personal security of students who study and live on campus who feel threatened by the consequences of this type of proposed question, which I believe foments the antisemitism and hostility I have described…. I believe that these students’ concerns for their personal safety are justified, as acts of violence have often followed hostility to Jews.”
While not Jewish, Presch is a member of the Jewish Students Association and the historically Jewish Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He declined requests to comment but, in an affidavit filed with his lawyer, Howard Mickelson, Presch recalled that the first referendum created a “toxic environment on campus.” He said the question being posed by the AMS was contrary to its mission statement, which is to “cultivate unity and goodwill among its members” and to “encourage free and open debate as well as respect for differing views.” Presch also noted that the AMS code of procedure requires referendum questions to be capable of a “yes” or “no” answer, but that this question is “so loaded with assumptions (which are themselves highly controversial), that it will not be clear what a yes or no vote by my student colleagues will actually mean.”
Mickelson said the court recognized that the question was loaded and that the intention of a “yes” vote could be unclear for the AMS to act on, but denied the petition because the court determined “the society’s bylaws do not require that a question be fair as long as it can be answered yes or no. The standard for a qualifying question is a low one.”
Mickelson said the court recognized the “concerns for student safety” and acknowledged “the responsibility of the AMS and UBC to ensure student safety and respectful debate by all means necessary.”
“Although this case involves the political hot potato issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of BDS on campus, we argued that this was about the interpretation of this society’s bylaws,” said Mickelson, who represented Presch’s petition pro bono. “One of the arguments made by proponents of the question was that, in the context of a referendum, one party that is ‘funded’ or has ‘connections’ may be able to shut down the question against those that may not have the same level of funding…. I thought it was important for the court to understand that I was doing this pro bono.”
Though “disappointed” about the ruling, Bregman said “we really won the battles because the judge didn’t disagree with any of our arguments. We lost because the judge felt he was bound by a very poorly written bylaw by the AMS. So, we go forward fighting this nefarious referendum aimed at marginalizing and demonizing not only Israel but, by extension, those who support Israel.”
Bregman recalled that, in the spring 2015 referendum, UBC had the largest “no” vote ever seen in Canada at that time. “We’re ready to fight the referendum,” he said, adding, “But really, what we’re all about is dialogue and this is something that the SPHR has never taken us up on. Whereas we have dialogue with all sorts of groups on campus, the SPHR has rebuffed all of our efforts.”
The referendum question was to be directed at students starting Monday, as the Jewish Independent was preparing to go to press.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net. This article was originally published by CJN.
Dr. Ra’anan Boustan of Princeton University delivers the Itta and Eliezer Zeisler Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia on March 23. (photo by Gregg Gardner)
A mosaic from Late Antiquity has lessons for Jewish communities today. According to Dr. Ra’anan Boustan of Princeton University, “Jewish identity, historically, was broader, more porous, and integrated more non-Jewish elements than we might think, and, likewise today, we should not hasten to essentialize or rigidly define Jewish identity or culture.”
Boustan offered this insight when delivering the Itta and Eliezer Zeisler Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia on March 23. Called Greek Kings and Judaean Priests in the Late Antique Synagogue: The Newly Discovered “Elephant Mosaic,” Boustan’s visit was presented by the Archeological Institute of America, Vancouver Society, and co-sponsored by the UBC Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics, and the department of classical, Near Eastern and religious studies (CNERS).
A 2011 dig led by archeologist Jodi Magness excavated several sections at the site of a former village, Huqoq, near the Sea of Galilee. Among the items uncovered was a mosaic that is said to have adorned the floor of an elaborate 1,600-year-old synagogue.
“The discovery of the mosaic was a major find,” Prof. Gregg Gardner of CNERS told the Jewish Independent. “There are very few mosaics from the ancient world that depict biblical scenes.”
The mosaics’ scenes include Samson fighting the Philistines, Noah and the flood, the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, and others. A particularly noteworthy element is that the mosaics also show images from Greek history and mythology. “This confluence of biblical and Greek imagery was quite surprising,” said Gardner.
Boustan was in Vancouver to talk about the “Elephant Panel,” which depicts a battle between unknown actors. Although some have argued that the panel represents Alexander the Great, Boustan interprets the mosaic as the depiction of a Seleucid attack on Jerusalem led by King Antiochus VII in 132 BC. “It shows they had a sense of historical connection to predecessors in a more robust way than we might have expected, and wanted to have that memorialized in synagogue art. This shows a historical consciousness, not just the timeless world of rabbis and scriptural interpretation developing in the Talmud of the same period.”
Boustan is a specialist in Judaism in Late Antiquity (circa 200-700 CE) who has focused particularly on understanding “extra-rabbinic culture,” the Judaism that existed outside of what was preserved in the narratives of the rabbis. “The rabbinic writings – the Talmud, the Midrash – preserve the world through their eyes, what they thought was important and how they wanted things to be viewed. The rabbis did not represent all Jews or all Judaism, and the wider Jewish world may have had different viewpoints and priorities.”
Boustan has focused on studying the piyyutim (hymns) written and preserved outside the rabbinic canon and containing some unusual theological ideas, as well as on apocalyptic and mystical literature, which flourished on the fertile edge between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.
“The mosaic is important for understanding the history of Jews and Judaism and gives us something to think about in terms of Jews living in the Western world today,” he said, noting the broader and more porous nature of Jewish identity in those times, and how we shouldn’t be in a hurry to “rigidly define Jewish identity or culture.”
For example, Boustan explained, “The figural art we are finding at Huqoq and elsewhere upends some of our assumptions that, classically, Jews didn’t do that. In fact, we’ve found many small villages of one to two thousand habitants who built very expensive buildings containing a mixture of folk art and world-class art. In Huqoq, the art is imperial-quality work, which would not be surprising to find in a major landowner’s villa in Antioch. Yet, there it is, being commissioned, paid for and used by a farming village of maybe 2,000 people. That tells us we have a lot more to learn about the Jews of Late Antiquity.”
He noted, “In addition, the synagogue art contains a zodiac wheel with a figure of the sun god, Helios, in the centre. What’s going on there? Is it just a decoration? Was it actually part of religious worship in the synagogue? Was it seen allegorically as a poetic representation of God?
“Helios imagery was adopted by Christians in the third century, along with many other Greek religious symbols,” he said. “As the Greco-Roman world Christianized, however, they distanced themselves from ‘pagan’ imagery. By the late fourth to seventh [century], Jews are the only ones actively cultivating zodiacal and Helios imagery. Ironically, if you find a building with Helios imagery from that period, it’s almost definitely a synagogue.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The Peace Factory founders Joana Osman and Ronny Edry spoke at the University of British Columbia on Feb. 6. (photo by Zach Sagorin)
“Israel loves Iran,” “Palestine loves Israel,” “Israel loves Palestine,” “Iran loves Israel & Palestine.” The Peace Factory uses social media to connect people in the Middle East, to build relationships and see one another as human beings with visions of peace.
“People may not like the idea of inclusion, the idea of welcoming everyone, but that’s why we are here – to invite those people to learn about the various cultures and faiths that are around us,” said Shem Arce when introducing the Active Community Dialogue (ACD) event Make a Friend, Make Peace. “With some dialogue and understanding we can create a community for everyone – no matter their religion, culture or ethnic background.”
Arce, a University of British Columbia film studies student from Mexico, recently began ACD with the goal of combating discrimination through meaningful, respectful dialogue and interactions.
ACD’s Make a Friend, Make Peace event on Feb. 6 featured a presentation from the founders of the Peace Factory: Ronny Edry, an Israeli graphic designer living in Tel Aviv, and Joana Osman, a Palestinian living in Munich. The pair also spoke at King David High School.
The UBC event drew dozens of people, and Edry showed the crowd a poster he uploaded to Facebook in 2012, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “was calling for preemptive strike on Iran,” when “it was quite stressing.”
The graphic designer decided to send something else to Iran. He designed a brightly coloured poster with a photo of him holding his daughter and bold text declaring, “Iranians / we will never bomb your country / We ♥ You.” Edry told the audience that the “five first comments were ‘delete it’” but, after leaving the poster online, he was surprised to find that “Iranians were commenting on the picture” and a line of communication was created.
“If something works, do it again,” said Edry. Soon, he added, “a lot of Iranians and Israelis started having a conversation.”
Interestingly, the security guard of the ACD event, an Iranian-Canadian man, had participated in the Peace Factory movement.
“When you don’t know someone and you close your eyes and think of the enemy, you end up thinking of some kind of monster,” said Edry. In Israel, “most of the time on the TV, they won’t show you the nice people of Iran.”
But, after starting the “Israel loves Iran” campaign, Edry received pictures from Iranians wanting to join. The movement has enabled many Iranians and Israelis to connect and build friendships online. And it continues to grow, with more than 121,000 likes and more than one million unique visitors each week to the “Israel loves Iran” Facebook page and more than two million views of Edry’s Ted Talk. The movement is continuing, with “both sides sharing stories and pictures of themselves,” said Edry.
With the success of “Israel loves Iran,” Edry said people were “coming up to me and saying, ‘Why don’t you do the same campaign with the Palestinians?’”
Soon after, Osman founded the group “Palestine loves Israel” to create a platform for Palestinians and Israelis to get to know one another through social media.
Together, Edry and Osman created the Peace Factory to “try to rehumanize the [other side] and give them a face and a story.”
Osman said building these connections “changes everything because, once you make a friend on the other side, everything changes for you.”
Osman said she asked herself, “As one person what can you do?” Her answer was, “You can be part of the change and you start communicating … if you can change one person’s mind, that may be enough.”
She added, “The enemy is nothing like you have in your mind … and, when you get to see his face and you see nice people,” you realize “they are not that bad.”
The Peace Factory’s vision is of a free and democratic Middle East, and they intend to build bridges and friendships to connect people with the same vision.
“It is not that we deny there is a conflict,” Osman said. “We have to pay attention to it, but I strongly believe that the solution can’t come from politics, it comes from people, real people connecting to each other…. Once you understand the other side is a real people with real pain … you come to the conclusion we are one people, one human race, with one goal to live in peace.”
Left to right, Harry, Joseph, Benjamin and Rachel Seidelman, in approximately 1906. (photo from JMABC L.25670)
The following is an edited version of remarks presented at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC) Intersections speakers series on Dec. 15 about the museum’s online exhibit Letters Home.
Recently, my wife Shelley and I were on a tour of Italy that stopped at the Cassino War Cemetery for soldiers killed during the Battle of Monte Cassino, a battle which resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties. In the 15 minutes we were there, we found two headstones with a Magen David, for soldiers from British Columbia who were killed in this Second World War battle. These headstones commemorate just two of many soldiers who have died in the fight for democracy but whose bodies are interred far away from family. My Uncle Joe was even less fortunate. Since his body was never found, there is no grave and, therefore, no headstone.
The First World War claimed the lives of 38 million civilians and soldiers alike. Approximately 2,700 Canadian Jews served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, with about 1,200 seeing combat. Of those, an estimated 123 died in battle.
In late 1917, Gen. Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, insisted that the key to victory on the Western Front was capturing the area around the village of Passchendaele, near Ypres in Belgium. Even though bad weather had turned the battlefield into a quagmire, Haig was determined to proceed.
At Passchendaele, on Oct. 26, 1917, 15,654 Canadian soldiers were killed. Among those who paid the terrible price for this hopeless decision was Pte. (Edward) Joseph Seidelman, 20, of Vancouver. His father, William, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who, after living in Kansas and Seattle, had settled in Vancouver in the 1890s. There, he met Esther Pearlman from Winnipeg. The two were married in 1896. Joseph was born a year later, followed by four more children during the next decade. Their father unfortunately died in 1907, leaving Joseph, Rachel, Harry and Ben; William was born after his father died and was named after him.
In 1916, Joseph was a student at the University of British Columbia. He would have graduated in 1918, the final year of the university’s transition from being an annex of McGill University to being a fully independent UBC.
Yearbooks are meant to celebrate successes at the institution but the 1918 edition also records the experiences of students who went to fight in the war and returned home, and it laments those students who went to war and did not return. One section is entitled “Military” and includes a copy of the Roll of Honour in Memoriam plaque that hangs in the foyer of the UBC War Memorial Gymnasium. It also contains brief biographies of those who were killed in action, including Joseph. Seventy-eight UBC students lost their lives during the war, and are commemorated on plaques in the War Memorial Gymnasium.
Compelled to do his patriotic duty, Joseph enlisted in the Western Universities 196th Battalion, which was made up of more than 150 students from universities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Joseph was in England by November 1916. Early in 1917, he was sent to northern France and found himself in the muddy trenches of the Western Front.
So, how much do we know about someone who lived and died so long ago? Well, because of the letters featured in the JMABC online exhibit Letters Home, we have come to know Edward Joseph Seidelman better. In addition, in the 1918 yearbook, there is also a short mention of Joseph in a message from Prof. Lemuel Robertson, the first chair of the classics department at UBC. “Do you remember those little talks on socialism with Coughlan, or when Norman Hughes came into class the day after a dance, in the hope that he wouldn’t be asked anything? And Seidelman, too?” There are only three words but they give us a clue into his personality, that perhaps he liked to party.
In the letters Joseph wrote to his sister Rachel over nine months, he discussed family business and Vancouver affairs – in one letter, he expressed surprise at being a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship – and stated his hope that the war might end soon, though his optimism about the war varied. Even though he was in the centre of the action, he seems, in retrospect, to have been somewhat ignorant of how the war was actually proceeding.
The following letters are only examples drawn from the 87 he wrote. The letters from May 7, 1917, and are part of the JMABC online exhibit.
Camp Hughes, Man., Oct. 2, 1916: “I am going to Brandon again on Thursday afternoon and will stay over Friday, the 6th of October and also Saturday. I stayed with a Jewish family named Kisner and they were glad indeed to have me. Five or six decent-looking Jewish families wanted me to stay with them but Kisners had me first. Mrs. Kisner is only about 30 years old and she comes from the same city in Russia where mamma comes from, Novgorod. Mrs. Kisner introduced me to her 18-year-old sister….”
Dec. 24, 1916: “I knew Mr. Gibson’s son who was reported killed. Mamma has no reason to worry about me. It looks as though Germany will surrender to the Entente Allies…. I read in a London newspaper to-day called Lloyd’s Weekly News that a very high official of the German government … has confessed that Germany is starving and will give to England all that England demands even surrendering the Kaiser himself if necessary. It is quite possible, therefore, that the war may stop within a month or two by Germany’s sudden and complete surrender.”
Joseph stated that he applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps but they were not taking any more applicants at that time. Instead, he was taking a lieutenant’s course and would perhaps go to a military training school later.
Feb. 17, 1917: “Two large Trans Atlantic liners carrying about 12,000 sacks of mail were reported torpedoed and sunk by German submarines and so let me tell you once again not to send anything valuable, for a German submarine might put an end to it.”
Feb. 27, 1917: “No doubt there are still many fellows hanging around in Vancouver who should be in the Army. I cannot understand their state of mind unless they have no self-respect or sense of honour. Let them go their ways while there is no conscription but I certainly am glad I am not in those times in civilian clothes. The B.C. University will have to wait until the end of the war for me at least.”
March 4, 1917: “France is certainly a muddy place. You ought to hear our artillery guns hurl death and destruction into the rank of the Huns [Germans]. The artillery makes most of the noise at night and then, when you wake up, you hear the terrific reports of each shot as quickly as the pat-pat-pat of a typewriter.”
March 11, 1917: “Things are somewhat interesting around this part of the world. British aeroplanes fly over us about as thickly as birds. To-day the Huns were firing at our aeroplanes and the puffs of smoke from the enemy’s shells bursting around the aeroplanes could easily be seen. It is very regrettable though that one of the enemy’s shells must have pierced the petrol tank of one of our aeroplanes, for it came down a mass of flames with a thick black column of smoke shooting out behind it. I never saw a single German aeroplane since I came to France. No doubt they have their wits scared out of them.”
April 7, 1917: “The chances of peace do not … look as rosy as I thought but the Huns will be defeated ultimately.”
April 17, 1917: “To-day after returning with a party from a certain part of France where the Germans were once expelled from and the ground all cut and plowed up with trenches, I found waiting for me a parcel containing a broken biscuit tin with some of mamma’s home-made confectionary (including many crumbs) and a tin of strawberries and coffee.”
May 7, 1917, datelined “some other place in France this time”: “I suppose it must have been reported to you that I was very slightly wounded by two very small pieces of shrapnel and, as I feel that you folks at home are very anxious to hear particulars, I want to assure you that there is absolutely nothing whatever for you to worry about. The two wounds I got are on the outer side of my right leg, one above the knee about the centre and the other below the knee about the centre. Although each wound has the appearance of nothing more than a [scratch?] on the skin, nevertheless I had to come to the hospital, where it is a pleasure to be for a change. One of the attendants told me that the leg will be alright again in about 5 days. So tell mamma to be happy and cheerful at home.
“I received three letters from you while I was in the firing line. I was much surprised to hear of the murder of Chief of Police McLennan. I guess Vancouver was shocked at the time almost as badly as a war event.”
On May 22, 1917, from “somewhere in France,” Joseph writes that he still has not rejoined his battalion after his leg injury, as another shrapnel piece was found in his leg, and required more medical attention at the hospital. Joseph tells Rachel that the shrapnel was found with the aid of an X-ray, and the doctor let him keep the shrapnel as a souvenir.
On July 3, 1917, again from “somewhere in France,” Joseph has returned to his battalion. In this letter, he tells Rachel that, on the night of May 5, 1917, when he received his leg wound, he still made the effort to help out a wounded officer. A telegram indicating Joseph’s return to the battalion from the hospital was sent to Joseph’s mother, Esther, on July 5, 1917.
On Oct. 14, 1917, still “somewhere in France,” Joseph reports “nothing to write about.” It is the last letter he writes home.
Joseph fought and survived the Battle for Vimy Ridge, was wounded in the leg in another battle and spent several weeks in an army hospital before being sent back to the front. On Oct. 26, the first day Canadian soldiers fought at Passchendaele, he was killed. Joseph was the first Canadian Jewish soldier from Vancouver to die fighting in the war.
UBC Remembrance Day Ceremonies have been held since 1951, when the War Memorial Gymnasium was opened. Since that time, I have attended nearly every ceremony. At first, I went with my brother and our father, Harry, who was too young to be part of the First World War and too old to be part of the Second World War. In the early years, my father would speak with veterans who knew Joseph. Over time, they all have passed away, but I have continued to attend the memorial ceremony with various members of my family as a way to remember my Uncle Joe, who is lying somewhere in France with no grave or headstone; our own kever avot (tradition of visiting the graves of our fathers).
Perry Seidelmanis, among other things, president of the board of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
Chabad on Campus, student and other volunteers and Shabbat hosts made Shabbat Across UBC on Nov. 18 possible. (photos from Chabad at UBC)
On Nov. 18, more than 75 students celebrated Shabbat with Chabad on Campus at the University of British Columbia but, this time, they only arrived at Chabad after dinner. Instead of hosting the meal at the Chabad House as usual, there were six different dinners hosted by student volunteers in their residence buildings, after which the students met up at Chabad, where they shared dessert and got a chance to know one another.
Rabbi Chalom Loeub, who runs Chabad at UBC with his wife Esti, delivered food and supplies, and the hosts invited their friends and neighbors and ran the meal.
Cordelia Sank is a second-year UBC theatre production student, who volunteered to co-host a dinner in the Fairview Residence block. “Getting the chance to bring together all of the other Jewish students in my residence was very special and inspiring for me,” she said, “and I look forward to attending many more of these dinners in the future.”
The event was a big success, drawing in both seasoned Chabad members and new students, some of whom were experiencing Shabbat for the first time. UBC president Santa J. Ono wrote a letter of congratulation, praising the event as a “wonderful initiative … to build community at UBC.”
Hani Gorgy is a third-year exchange student visiting from Israel, who has attended many Shabbat meals, classes and programs at Chabad on Campus. “I’ve always felt that Shabbat dinner is a time of spiritual joy,” she said. “Being invited to Shabbat dinners here in Vancouver made me feel welcomed and safe. Meeting so many Jewish people here helped me feel like I’m part of the community.”
Weekly Shabbat dinners are only one of the programs that Chabad at UBC offers, including social programs, Torah classes, kosher meals on campus, support and holiday programming for the Jewish community at UBC and other colleges and universities across Vancouver.
The Shabbat Across UBC event was made possible by the sponsorship of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Marine Drive Superstore. Chef Menajem of Forty-One Catering created an impeccable spread, and the student volunteers and Shabbat hosts made this annual event a reality.
An aerial view of the University of British Columbia campus. (photo by justiceatlast via Wikimedia Commons)
Aaron Devor, a leader in British Columbia’s Jewish community, has been appointed to the world’s first academic chair in transgender studies.
Devor, a professor of sociology who is also the president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and sits on the board of Hillel BC, assumed his new duties Jan. 1. Devor is also the founder and academic director of the Transgender Archives, which was launched in 2011 and already comprises the world’s largest collections of documents recording transgender activism and research.
Devor defines the term transgender as including a diversity of people.
“Anyone who feels that the gender that was assigned to them on the basis of their genitals is not the correct one, that it’s not the proper fit,” said Devor, who is himself a transgender person. This includes, he said, people who want to present as or become the opposite gender but also many people who reflect “something more creative or original or different, or some combination of what we think of as the two standard genders.”
Devor has encountered surprise that Victoria, perceived by some as a parochial provincial capital, has become a global centre for transgender research and study. In his experience, he said, Victoria has always been a progressive community and the University of Victoria ranks high among the educational institutions in the world.
That Victoria would become a centre for transgender academia is due in part to Devor’s ongoing involvement in the subject as an academic and as an activist, but also through the support of the university for his endeavors, he said. Individuals who have been collecting relevant materials know Devor and contact him when they want to contribute them to a legitimate archive, and the imprimatur of the University of Victoria adds to their confidence, he said.
“I know the people who have been collecting and I have approached many of them and many of them have approached me after they started to understand what we have here,” he explained. “It’s all donated by people who have been amassing their own collections and want a safe place to put it.”
Popular culture, he said, has helped bring transgender awareness to a tipping point. In 2014, Laverne Cox, a star of the TV program Orange is the New Black, was on the cover of Time magazine. The program Transparent, in which a family addresses the gender transition of the father, began the same year. The openness of Chaz Bono, who North Americans have known since doing walk-ons on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the 1970s, also helped increase consciousness.
“There are huge limitations, in a way, to communicating effectively through popular culture,” said Devor, but “one of the things that happens through popular culture is people tend to feel like they know the stars, know the personalities that they see on television and in the movies and that they follow on the internet and so on. Even if they’ve never met them, they start to feel like they know them. So, when public figures in popular culture say and do things, it becomes real for a lot of people. One of the things that we know helps to undermine prejudice is when you feel like you know someone of that particular type, whatever that type is that you’ve been prejudiced about.”
Many people still don’t understand it, he added, but are willing to keep an open mind.
“My sense of the public attitude that we’ve reached just very, very recently is that, by and large, the public takes the attitude of, ‘I don’t really get this but I guess it’s OK and I’m willing to go along with it,’” he said. “I haven’t done a survey on this but I’m a keen observer, a well-placed observer … that’s my take on it.
“I think we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of people holding goodwill toward trans people, and I don’t want to overstate that,” he continued. “We’ve just reached a tipping point, but I think in terms of knowing what to do to actualize that goodwill, I think people have very little idea what to do, which is why we need more research and more translation of that research into the real world.”
As the world’s first chair in transgender studies, Devor hopes to be a part of advancing understanding. He hopes that the research being developed will aid in the creation of better laws and policies, while also “changing hearts and minds.”
“There is law and there’s policy and there’s practice,” he said. “Individual members of societies put all of this into practice. You can have good laws on the books but it doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s going to happen in everyday life will very well reflect what those laws are.”
Legally, most provinces have some protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression.
“The province of British Columbia is not one of those, which is surprising,” he said. Some people contend that the word gender in the human rights code is sufficient, but most of the provinces, he said, have enacted legislation that specifies gender identity as a prohibited grounds for discrimination. Still, he prefers the term “gender expression.”
“Discrimination is based on what you look and sound like more often than on how you actually feel about yourself,” he explained. In other words, heterosexual people may experience bullying or violence if they exhibit what are perceived as traits of homosexuals.
In the Jewish realm, Devor said, religious organizations are addressing trans inclusion. Just last November, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people. The resolution affirms the Reform movement’s commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.
The Conservative movement has a responsum from 2003, which Devor consulted on, and may address the matter in future.
Among the many Shabbat 100 volunteers were, from left to right, Ben Felstein (Chabad Jewish Student Club and Israel on Campus), Daniella Malpartida (Jewish Students Association), Anna Kapron-King (Progressive Jewish Alliance), Lior Bar-el (JSA and PJA), Michelle Levit (CJSC), Sydney Switzer (CJSC), Katrin Zavgorodny (CJSC board), Jennifer Brodsky (CJSC) and Becca Recant (Hillel BC). (photo from Chabad at UBC)
More than 140 students, faculty and alumni gathered in University of British Columbia’s newly built AMS Student Nest on Jan. 22 for Shabbat 100, which was organized by Chabad Jewish Student Centre-Vancouver.
The event was co-sponsored by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, Lohn Foundation, Chabad of Richmond and Great Canadian Superstore on Marine Drive, and co-hosted by Chabad Jewish Student Club, Hillel BC, and all of the Jewish clubs at UBC: Jewish Student Association, Progressive Jewish Alliance and Israel on Campus.
Guests enjoyed a three-course Shabbat dinner by Forty One Catering, and the evening included ice-breaker games, Shabbat songs and a presentation from each club.
Chabad hopes this will become an annual gathering. “It was so nice to see so many Jewish students coming together for this event,” said Rabbi Chalom Loeub of Chabad UBC. “We are on a high and look forward to bigger and better next year!”
Maria LeRose, left, speaks with Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl. (photo from Janusz Korczak Association of Canada)
The second lecture of the “How to Love a Child” series, co-sponsored by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada and the University of British Columbia faculty of education, took place at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre on Oct. 29. The topic was Janusz Korczak and the Importance of Listening to Children’s Voices in Education: Theory, Research and Practical Strategies.
Keynote speaker Dr. Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl spoke at length on being mindful and caring towards children, very much in the spirit of Korczak’s own theories on how to love a child. Her best example was the classroom as the microcosmic world of children, where teachers’ attitudes towards their students play an integral role in their development.
Schonert-Reichl is a professor in the Human Development, Learning and Culture program at UBC and the interim director of the Human Early Learning Partnership. She has authored more than 100 articles and several books, and her focus is on the social and emotional development and the well-being of children and adolescents.
In her address, she talked about her own education and how she was seduced by the idea of giving children a voice in the classroom. So, she engaged them in decorating the classroom according to their own taste, and let them express their ideas. When the students saw that their opinion mattered, they became engaged. Schonert-Reichl realized that she was learning from her students by listening to them, hearing and heeding their voices, and this increased her pleasure in teaching them. She discussed further how teachers need to have compassion for the children and to never shame them.
Following the keynote lecture, moderator Maria LeRose, program consultant for the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education and adjunct professor at UBC in the faculty of medicine, coordinated a panel consisting of Robin Kaebe, Salma Rafi and Alexander Corless, Grade 6 students at Lord Roberts Elementary School, who answered questions from the audience. They spoke of how a teacher’s attitude matters; how children need to be heard and seen. Even a hello in the school corridor gives a child a sense of being and recognition.
One student said that the classroom becomes like a second family and that very important relationships are formed at school. Another appreciated school’s climate of comfort and safety. Another defined a teacher as “somebody who asks us what we want to do.” Also appreciated was the presence of suggestion boxes as a medium through which the children could express their thoughts and feelings.
Both Schonert-Reichel and LeRose addressed the fact that teachers also need care and understanding, as being a teacher is an often-demanding job that can cause burnout.
The panel discussion closed on the importance of parent-teacher communication, as that gives the child more confidence, acknowledgment and feeling of security.
Jerry Nussbaum, the president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada, opened the evening with remarks about Korczak and his various activities in the field of children’s rights and welfare, and he quoted Korczak: “Children are people whose souls contain the seeds of all those thoughts and emotions that we possess. As these seeds develop, their growth must be gently directed.”
Nussbaum mentioned the famous Korczak democratic court, held in his orphanage for the children by the children. Nussbaum concluded his address by thanking all the donors, speakers and volunteers.
The next and third lecture of the six-part series takes place in the alumni centre on Nov. 25, with Anne Cools, senator for Toronto Centre-York, and moderator Dr. Edward Kruk, associate professor of social work at UBC. The discussion will focus on current challenges in the implementation of the “best interests of the child” standard in Canadian jurisprudence, social policy and professional practice. To register, visit jklectures.educ.ubc.ca.
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz is a Vancouver-based author and a board member of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada.
Hillel BC’s home on the University of British Columbia campus, the Diamond Foundation Centre for Jewish Campus Life. (photo by ThosGee via panoramio.com)
It’s been a tumultuous year on the University of British Columbia campus for Hillel BC, one filled with victories, but also with some disappointments. The Jewish Independent interviewed Hillel BC’s executive director, Rabbi Philip Bregman, on the challenges his organization has faced to date and on what is yet to come.
JI: What has the past year been like at Hillel?
PB: We’re seeing a resurgence of antisemitism the likes of which have not been seen for many years, and we’re seeing it right across the board of the 550 Hillels across North America. It has come primarily as a result of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. While incidents in the past would come and go, this one is a much more organized attack against Jews and Israelis on campus. And it’s not about boycotting products. The BDS movement is about three Ds: the demonization of Israel, the delegitimization of Israel, and the double standard that’s used with regard to Israel and the rest of the world. In this regard, the BDS movement has been fairly successful. On campuses in particular it’s created a real angst, a real discomfort for Jews, for Israelis. That’s its purpose.
JI: Can you talk about the recent referendum on campus, wherein the SPHR (Students for Palestinian Human Rights) asked students to vote on whether or not they supported their student union in instituting BDS on campus?
PB: Again, it wasn’t about boycotting products. They didn’t even let the students know what products needed to be boycotted. It was just a blanket statement that was absolutely absurd. When SPHR did mention a couple of products, it became obvious that it was absurd that any of those would go forward. For example, SPHR said they were going to boycott Caterpillar, because its machinery has destroyed Palestinian homes. I pointed out to them that the new Student Union Building at UBC was excavated with Caterpillar machinery. Should that then be boycotted? They didn’t answer. The second product they said they wanted to boycott was Motorola Solutions. I pointed out that this company is responsible for the operating systems of all Androids, and asked, “Are you telling the student body and AMS [Alma Mater Society, the student union] that no one on campus can use anything but iPhones?” The third product was Sabra Hummus. I told them that, in 2000, the Strauss Dipping Co., which owned Sabra Hummus, sold 50% of its shares to Pepsi Cola, and that over 60% of the vending machines in the Student Union Building are Pepsi products. Again, they didn’t answer.
Initially, before it was circulated, we appealed the referendum on the grounds that it was creating toxicity on campus. The AMS ombudsperson agreed with us that it was a terrible resolution, but the AMS board didn’t even comment on her report, which was tremendously disappointing. So, the referendum went out to the student body, and there was a lot of intimidation with regard to signing it. Later, the AMS found a number of signatures on the ballots were illegal….
At the end of the day, the SPHR fell short of the quorum they needed to pass the referendum. They needed 4,100 signatures, which represents eight percent of the eligible voters at UBC. They got about 3,500 votes. However the anti-BDS movement got 2,700 votes, which was more than double the number of votes in the rest of Canada, voting against BDS.
This BDS movement that we’ve had to deal with this past year was all-consuming. I have a magnificent staff and some magnificent student leaders who really were in the trenches day in and day out. I was in constant contact with the UBC administration about this, letting them know that the BDS movement is not an issue of free speech but one of hate speech.
JI: What kind of relationship does Hillel UBC have with Muslims on campus?
PB: When I first introduced myself to the representative from SPHR and suggested we start a dialogue, she told me, “We have a no dialogue policy with you people. If we talk to you, we will be condoning your murderous and genocidal ways.” We have been successful in reaching out to other Muslim groups on campus, however, including the Muslim Students Association and the Pakistani Students Association. We’ve had all sorts of collaborative programs, some light and some heavy. The idea is dialogue, not agreement.
JI: How are Jewish students at UBC responding to the BDS movement?
PB: At Hillels across North America, probably no more than five percent of the Jewish students on any campus really get into this fight. But we have a Jewish student population of about 1,200 and half of those voted against the BDS referendum.
JI: Going forward, who are you most likely to reach out to on campus?
PB: In fighting this resolution, we quickly realized where we should spend our limited time, energy and manpower: with graduate students, science students, law and medicine. Most of the statements in favor of BDS were coming from students in liberal arts backgrounds, and we were not going to win their hearts and minds. We were looking for people who would look at this referendum critically and understand what it was really about – the demonization and elimination of the state of Israel.
In general, the greatest group of students on campuses today tends to be those that are apathetic. I believe in a vote there would absolutely be more people opposed to us than supporting us. But I think that because we were out tabling every day, sharing and distributing information, we got some of those people who thought of voting yes, but voted no. And most of it was respectful dialogue.
JI: What kind of place is Hillel at UBC today?
PB: Hillel is a big tent, a place where individuals come in and just hang out. Some want to learn and engage in other types of conversation, and there’s a vast array of opportunity no matter where you are on the spectrum of Jewish life. It’s also a place of fantastic food, so people come for our Wednesday hot lunches, known to be the best meal on campus. You don’t have to be engaged in any type of politics to be involved at Hillel, although last year that was very much a part of what we were doing. Hillel is also the place of dialogue with other groups, such as the UBC chaplaincy, which holds meetings in our facility every second week for ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and Buddhists. And we encourage other clubs to come and program with us.
JI: What are your fears going into the next academic year?
PB: My fear is that this issue will continue to come back. Birthright is only getting a fraction of the younger Jewish generation in their 20s and 30s to Israel. In various reports that have come out, when they’ve asked Jewish university students if it mattered to them if Israel did not exist, 50% said no, it did not matter. This group is buying into what they see about Israel in the media and what they hear on campuses from fellow students and professors.
So, I wonder, what’s the responsibility we have as parents, teachers, mentors to a younger generation? To allow something like BDS to run its course when you know it’s not in the best interest of student life, because it’s under the rubric of “free speech”? Where is the limit, the line? This is not about trying to shut down criticism of the state of Israel.
Still, I’m hopeful. Our tent at Hillel is big, we have phenomenal student leadership and we’re there to hear all sorts of opinions as long as they don’t endanger individuals on one side, or call for the eradication of the state of Israel. There’s a huge area in between. Our task is to continue to attempt to raise Jewishly proud, courageous, knowledgeable mensches.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.