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.