Canadian-Israeli Sidney Shapiro addresses the CAMERA conference in Boston last August. (photo from CAMERA)
Sidney Shapiro had finished his Israel Defence Forces service just weeks before he arrived on campus at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont.
“I walked into the door of the school and there is a huge poster of a kid, a Palestinian kid, in the shadow of a field box and some Israel apartheid whatever,” he said, referring to a familiar cartoon employed by Canada’s anti-Israel movement. “So I wrote an email to the professor who put up the poster, saying I just served in Gaza for two years, I know a lot about it, I’ve seen from my firsthand experience. I’d like to talk to you about it. Not debate or try to convince you, just tell you what my experiences were. And he [replied], ‘I don’t talk to baby killers.’ That basically set the tone for the rest of my university experience.”
Shapiro, whose family made aliya from Canada when he was 10 years old, joined the Jewish Students Association at Laurentian and now, while working on his PhD, is president of the club. Over the years, he told the Independent, his club has had tremendous support from the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). In August, Shapiro was a guest speaker at the organization’s largest-ever campus advocacy conference.
While primarily an American organization, CAMERA has been a powerful resource whenever the Zionist students at Laurentian have called on them, Shapiro said.
“We started working with them four years ago,” he said. “We went to various U.S.-based organizations, as well as Canadian ones, and the most responsive one was CAMERA.”
CAMERA differs from other advocacy groups in that it focuses attention specifically on promoting more accurate, balanced and complete media coverage of Israel and the Middle East.
“We don’t have a Hillel, we don’t have a Chabad and we’re extremely isolated in terms of responding to Israel advocacy problems on campus,” Shapiro said. “So, while we have some support from the Federation, from CIJA, from other organizations, we don’t have anybody on campus. CAMERA, of all the organizations we ever worked with, is the most responsive, has the most resources and has been a really good partner when we have a frustrating situation on campus, picking up the phone and actually helping us dealing with it.”
The Saudi government sends about 500 students a year to Laurentian, but Shapiro said that is not where most of the trouble comes from. The small band of anti-Israel activists tends to be far removed from the realities of the Middle East. The more common image of a “pro-Palestinian” activist, he said, is “somebody who grew up in the [Canadian] north and has never been exposed to this except that [Israel is] the evil empire and everything that has to do with Israel is merely propaganda. People are incredibly brainwashed,” he said.
Shapiro, who spoke at the conference on the topic of Israeli history, Zionism and Jewish identity, was one of eight Canadian students at the event.
“The most important outcome of the conference is networking,” he said, “meeting many other students. Whether they go to big universities or small universities, we are in exactly the same position.”
A senior CAMERA official countered the idea that the pro-Israel side is losing the battle for minds on campus.
“There’s a misconception that Israel is losing terribly on American campuses,” said Gilad Skolnick, CAMERA’s director of campus programming, in a statement. “In fact, it’s the anti-Israel side that’s losing most of the time.” Of the 44 BDS campaigns [boycott, divestment and sanctions], only 12 have passed BDS resolutions, and over two dozen have failed.… That isn’t to say students don’t face extremely difficult challenges in a lot of places. They do. So, we have to train them as much as possible for whatever comes. Our program provides them with resources and support.”