The walls shook at York University on November 20.
So did the floors and the ceilings. And I’m sure many of those who witnessed the “protest” against former I.D.F. soldiers who were speaking on campus, were also shaken up.
As hundreds of demonstrators stomped through Vari Hall, banging the walls, ceilings and counters of that welcome-point for students and visitors to York, their unified screams of “Viva viva Palestina! Viva viva Intifada!”, became deafening.
What a welcome people received that night: explicit calls for the murder of Israelis from a school-approved student group through suicide bombings, shootings, stabbings and all other forms of violence the Palestinian Intifada is famous for.
Led by Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), and joined by Torontonians usually spotted at protests against the State of Israel, demonstrators morphed into an organized mob. In the chaos of the violent exchanges between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions, I couldn’t hear anything but the buzz of my eardrums. I felt like a character in a movie trying to regain my equilibrium after a bomb had gone off—I can see my surroundings but can’t hear anything. I see the venom in people’s eyes, and the expressions of rage across their faces; I feel the ground under my feet thumping, but a disturbing silence takes over.
As a York alumnus (2006–2010), I’m used to demonstrations. My classes in Vari Hall were sometimes interrupted by the angry chants of Tamil Tiger supporters, anti-Israel activists and the annual Israel Apartheid Week. This time, however, the fear tactics and open aggression against Israel and its supporters were bigger, louder—and I’m not ashamed to say it—scarier.
In contrast to past protests, this one was morally supported, at least implicitly, by Canada’s vote against Israel at the United Nation’s only two days prior, a vote that puts Canada in the same corner vis-à-vis Israel as North Korea and other inhumane regimes which play victim to the world, while starving their own populations, and using torture and intimidation to quash free speech.
And that was exactly the protestors’ purpose: to prevent those with a different narrative from sharing their lived experiences of protecting Israel from Intifada. I had to remind myself that we weren’t in the streets of Syria, Yemen or even Hong Kong. I was in Canada, where free speech reigns, not hate speech and shameless intimidation tactics that starve inquisitive minds and stifle constructive conversation between those who disagree.
To be clear, an Intifada is meant to create chaos in Israel while convincing the world that the Palestinians are the most oppressed people on earth, otherwise, “Why would they turn to such drastic measures as suicide bombing to defend themselves?!”
Similarly, SAIA and its supporters intimidate their detractors by creating chaos; this allows their “criticism” of Israel to be expressed without the inconvenient issue of intellectual challenge. As people try to swallow the lump in their throat caused by the intimidating mob, SAIA tries to get them to swallow their version of reality by turning up the noise and creating instability by literally making the surroundings shake.
It is not only valuable but critical for our intellectual growth to have hard conversations. However, as soon as one side drowns out the other side’s voice, as soon as they bar individuals from sharing their truth, and as soon as people are too scared and frightened to even identify as a group of people who share the same values, we as a society have failed.
Canada is a place where no one, whether Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, Tutsi, Ukrainian, et al., should ever be unsafe, shouted down, pushed around or threatened with collective physical attack in the form of an Intifada, for example.
Yet, while the walls shook and the floor beneath my feet trembled last Wednesday at York University, I looked around at other Jews and realized that the “Never Again” mantra that I was raised to respect is pointless, if people do nothing to stop the kind of vitriolic hate that mob was apparently so proud of.
Never Again means nothing if we let this animosity to continue to fester like a gaping wound against freedom and responsibility. The piercing screams from last week cannot fall on deaf ears. In the face of this storm, silence is nothing but a dangerous luxury.
Returning to York last week to observe the protest, I was hoping campus officials no longer welcomed the types of fear-mongering masquerading as “free speech”, which I had witnessed years prior. Instead of being proud of my alma mater for dealing with what was already in my day a long-standing problem, I’m left with a foreboding sadness for my kids’ future, the future of that school and academies across the continent.
Until the screaming stops and the other side is willing to dialogue, I don’t know where we’re headed and when those walls will stop shaking.