Editor’s note: The following is a submitted opinion piece following recent coverage of antisemitic graffiti on the campus of Queen’s University and a class action lawsuit alleging historic and ongoing antisemitism on campus, which was filed against the university on November 1, 2023. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
Homecoming is always such a great time to see so many alumni coming back to campus — visiting old friends, seeing newly constructed spaces on campus, and revisiting old ones that hold such dear memories. But I’m afraid that a weekend at Queen’s doesn’t give the full picture of what life is like on campus.
I live in Kingston. After graduating in 1995, I returned in 2018 to assume the pulpit at Beth Israel Congregation, which sits almost exactly halfway between main campus and west campus. In my role as rabbi, I interact a lot with students — some work for me in our Hebrew and religious school, some come for worship services, some are present at Queen’s Hillel, which is directly next door to our building and with whom we regularly collaborate on programming. I am in my second year of a four-year term on the Queen’s University Council, and as of September 2023, I am also a part-time graduate student in the Faculty of Education.
In my experience as an undergraduate, Queen’s was a warm place, though not culturally diverse, and I was constantly educating my peers about Jews and Judaism. For some of them, I was the first Jew they ever met. Most of the conversations I had were out of their genuine desire to learn and open their world to people who are different from themselves. I appreciated these interactions, and, in a real way, it is because of them that I pursued higher studies in Judaism and eventually became a rabbi. In my time at Queen’s there were issues with antisemitism as well, as we confronted the Heritage Front, a neo-Nazi white supremacist group that actively recruited people on university campuses and spread hate against Jews, people of colour, and other marginalized groups. Hearing their hatred on campus was upsetting, but we were supported in dealing with them. They were confronted and contained, and eventually disbanded in 2005.
Today, the situation on campus is much different. Since October 7, 2023, Jewish students on Queen’s campus have felt unsafe, threatened, and constantly inundated with hateful messages — both online and on virtually every door, post, and bathroom stall they encounter at Queen’s. Many of the Jewish students at Queen’s have direct connections with people who were attacked on October 7. Some were residents of the kibbutzim (communities) that were attacked — losing countless friends, family and community members to the terrorism inflicted on their home. Many of our students knew people murdered at the music festival; some students from Vancouver were good friends with Ben Mizrachi, whose heroic acts on that day cost him his life. Many of our students and faculty members have family who were in bomb shelters for hours, unsure of whether they would make it out alive. Some of their loved ones are being held hostage, and many of our students have friends and relatives who are serving in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. Instead of mourning their loved ones and focusing on having strength for those who are in danger, our students find themselves having to defend their very own existence.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions about political situations, and they can criticize foreign governments all they want. However, the signs, social media posts, and messages our students are confronted with are not that. They have crossed the line from political speech to hate speech and antisemitism. On campus, we are seeing signs calling for another intifada. Intifada means ‘uprising’ and implies violence, as the Second Intifada (2000 to 2005) was undoubtedly violent. As there is clearly already a violent uprising in Gaza currently, the only logical conclusion Jewish students can make is that their fellow students are calling for violence here at home. They hear their peers chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a refrain that is not only meant to support Palestinian statehood, but very clearly has the implication that the region should be cleansed of Jews — not by immigration, mind you. It is the genocidal slogan of Hamas, the terrorist organization that is responsible for killing, raping, kidnapping and desecrating the bodies of their friends and family members. Their professors and teaching assistants actively encourage the students to go out and protest what they call an apartheid government, knowing nothing about how this comparison falls woefully short.
What is almost more upsetting than this is how students have found themselves ostracized from their social circles. Jewish students are suddenly being accused of being “white colonial settlers” by their (mostly white) colonial settler peers, who regularly recite land acknowledgements to atone for their ancestors’ transgressions. (Note: Jews are neither white, nor colonial settlers. See here.) Friends with whom Jewish students marched for LGBTQ+ rights, held signs at Black Lives Matter rallies, and advocated for hearing women’s voices (#MeToo), now look at them as the oppressors, conveniently overlooking the fact that a) they are Canadian youth living outside of the State of Israel and have no say in Israeli politics or policies; b) Israel is the only country in the Middle East where LGBTQ+ people are free to live equally and in safety; and c) Arab citizens of Israel have more rights and freedoms than they would in other Arab countries. Notwithstanding all of this, for these left-wing activists, their Jewish peers are now suddenly the enemy.
Imagine how the Jewish students feel.
I don’t have to imagine. They tell me every day. They don’t feel safe. They are not safe going to class. They don’t feel safe in residence, where Jewish students’ rooms have been vandalized. They don’t feel safe online.
Antisemitism is real. When disagreement with Israel’s policies is made the responsibility of Canadian students in their 20s, it’s not because the activists think they are going to affect change in the Middle East. It’s because they are antisemitic.
Why do organizations, academics, clubs, and others who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, Israeli nor Palestinian, feel the need to make statements about the situation in the Middle East? Why do activists with no personal connections to the region make sweeping judgments without hearing differing perspectives and getting all the information? The answer is simple and complicated: antisemitism.
We cannot help but notice how much more the Queen’s community (and the world, for that matter) seems to take up the plight of Palestinians than, say, Syrians, Afghanis, or even Ukrainians. We do not see walk-outs and mass protests against Russia or Russians, though if we were to compare the destruction and effect on civilian populations, we most definitely should. Ukrainians matter. Palestinians matter. But why do Palestinians matter more? Because of antisemitism.
This is the new Queen’s that was probably mostly invisible to those visiting at Homecoming. It needs to change. Queen’s needs to do better for its students, its faculty, and all of us who live in the Kingston community. We are all affected by what happens on campus as it bubbles out and cross-pollinates with what happens in the city as a whole.
Kingston and Queen’s are better than this. We must be better than this.
The time has come for Queen’s to confront its antisemitism problem and address it head-on.
Rabbi Erin Polansky
Beth Israel Synagogue, Kingston