A short reflection on “Jewish victimhood” and Canadian university life

Ottawa-based columnist Michael Aarenau published an op-ed piece in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin biweekly newspaper entitled “Campus Life: Bonding over Jewish victimhood” on November 9, 2016 in which he wrote:

“Many of us seem to view any and all demonstrations against Israel as anti-Semitic. While there’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of the criticism against Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism, particularly the arguments against its very existence and calls for BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions], it’s perfectly legitimate for people to bring up fair and factual criticism about things like checkpoints and settlements, the very issues that a plurality of Israelis themselves discuss constantly…The Canadian Jewish News article brought up how students at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo organized an Israeli checkpoint simulation, ‘where they yelled at participants in order to simulate what life is like for Palestinians in the West Bank,’ and how some Jewish students felt uncomfortable seeing that. Have we seriously become so thin-skinned that a fake checkpoint has us running to the hills, crying anti-Semitic wolf?”

Mr. Aarenau’s piece reminded me of the politically heady days at Concordia University, where I was an undergraduate from 1999 to 2003, active in student politics, all in the middle of the deeply divisive Second Intifada. I sent a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin reflecting briefly on Mr. Aarenau’s piece, which I am sharing with our readers–many of whom follow the broader issues of Palestinian human rights and the nature of antisemitism closely.


Michael Aarenau. Photo: Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

Michael Aarenau. Photo: Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

Plus ça change…that old French adage came to mind when I read Michael Aarenau describe Israeli checkpoint simulations by pro-Palestinian activists at Canadian universities and how this made some students feel uncomfortable (“Campus Life: Bonding over Jewish victimhood,” November 9th, 2016). Fifteen years ago I was an undergraduate student at Concordia University in Montreal, where the tensions of the Middle East were particularly acute. I remember walking through one of those simulated checkpoints. I also recall how one day the university’s mezzanine, in the Henry F. Hall Building, was turned into a simulated Palestinian cemetery.

While some of this struck me as didactic and patronizing, universities are ultimately supposed to encourage students to step outside their comfort zones. That was certainly my experience at Concordia. At age 18, after having enjoyed a sheltered middle-class existence and having graduated from a small private school, I found myself among students whose childhoods had been filled with trauma and poverty. Their own suffering and inter-generational trauma (something not foreign to the descendants of Holocaust survivors) led to passionate and sometimes shrill expressions of their causes and beliefs.

In the end, measured and respectful campus dialogue on the Middle East can only occur at Canadian universities, if the various sides and parties involved can work through, and see beyond the threat that they perceive in the other. Fear of victimization may indeed help bind a community together, but it can also preclude healthy inter-community discourse.

Christopher Adam

One Comment

  1. Avatar Child of Survivors says:

    Michael aaarenau is in denial – either he is a self hating Jew – such as Soros, or such a leftist assimilated from a mixed marriage ill informed atheist – that he is trying to ramble on with a poor “article” indeed the cold of Ottawa has frozen his pea sized intellect –
    Michael, if you are a Jew at all did you ever consider being a lone soldier in the Israeli army even? I was – as a child of survivors, I made sure I did st least one stint- best experience of a summer ever!
    I been to the checkpoints you have the pea sized brain to try to criticize and saw how women children and would be assasins try to hurt a nation’s soldiers, then it’s population! And our brilliant elect President Trump will for sure have checkpoints better than we have now- reminds me that each time I Personally visited Canada, their border checkpoints were just as thorough and not manned by such sexy, friendly, good looking Israeli patrol either!

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