Photos C/O McMaster Hillel

CW: mentions of violence, anti-Semitism

By: Daniella Mikanovsky

On Oct. 30, McMaster students, faculty and staff gathered on the field near Burke Science Building to mourn the deaths of the 11 people who lost their lives during the Oct. 27 Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting, committed by a man espousing Nazi rhetoric.

The McMaster community was joined by rabbis and Hamilton community members as they addressed the tragedy that unfolded the previous weekend.

The vigil, organized by McMaster Hillel, the Jewish community organization on campus, sought to honour the victims, reflect on the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism and encourage hope and a united community.

[spacer height="20px"]At the memorial service, Max Librach, the president of McMaster Hillel, spoke about the victims and the relationship between the tragedy and his own experiences.

“I myself was praying in a synagogue on that same day. I do not for a second forget that this could easily have happened right here, in my own community,” said Librach.

Fourth-year McMaster student Max Greenberg recited El Ma’aleh Rachamim, a prayer for the departed soul of the dead. Greenberg’s prayer was followed by a poem about the Pittsburgh shooting. After the poem was recited, a few Psalms and the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer recited in memory of the victims, were said.

The mourners were joined by members of other faith groups who expressed their commitment to advocacy and combating anti-Semitism and discrimination against marginalized communities.

Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraëli of the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton praised the Jewish community’s sense of unity and solidarity.

“We must draw strength from our community, our peers, and the communities of friends and supporters we are fortunate to have, and forge on forward, actively fighting hate and bringing about a better tomorrow,” he said.

In the multi-faith vigil co-organized by Rabbi Hillel later that evening at Temple Anshe Sholom, several faith leaders joined mourners in addressing the importance of togetherness and solidarity.

Judith Moses Dworkin, the director of McMaster Hillel, encourages and appreciates the allyship during this difficult time.

“We know that we have many partners on campus who continue to show us their support. We urge our friends in other communities to join us in speaking out and countering anti-Semitic hatred whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. Only together can we truly heal from events like these,” she said.

Anti-Semitism continues to manifest itself in Hamilton, both subtly and more overtly. According to the CBC, in 2017, Jewish people were the most targeted group in religious-based hate incidents in Hamilton.

In the recent Oct. 22 municipal election, Paul Fromm, a self-proclaimed white supremacist associated with the neo-Nazi movement, garnered 706 votes.

“We have experienced some anti-Semitism in Hamilton over the past few years, but nothing more than graffiti, threats, and publication of a hate newspaper,” said rabbi Hillel. “Nonetheless, after the attack we are all feeling afraid and vulnerable. When all is said and done, we are not that much different from Pittsburgh,” he said.

McMaster Hillel is hopeful that they can support the Jewish community in the wake of the tragedy and increase public awareness about anti-Semitism and hatred on campus and in the community.

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On Jan. 25, Judith Dworkin, the director of McMaster Hillel, delivered a presentation to the President’s Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Community in Council Chambers of Gilmour Hall.

Dworkin’s presentation came in the wake of the swastikas found in the men’s bathrooms of Burke Science Building last spring. It also followed a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Hamilton, such as the swastikas drawn on sidewalks and on a rail trail in the city and the hate mail received by Temple Anshe Sholom in December 2017.

“[After these events transpired], the Jewish community was in shock,” said Dworkin.

In her presentation, Dworkin outlined a number of definitions of anti-Semitism, traced the origins and history of the swastika.

“[The swastika] is particularly traumatizing to the Jewish community and other communities who perished in the Holocaust,” she said.

In addition to increasing awareness, Dworkin’s presentation ignited dialogue about how the university and community should tackle anti-Semitism in the future.

“McMaster Hillel believes that the university should provide resources to students which will help educate the campus community on the topic of anti-Semitism, specifically in areas on how to recognize, where to report and what to do if experienced,” said Michal Coret, president of McMaster Hillel.

Following the presentation, PACBIC members discussed how the university should both prevent swastika graffiti from reappearing on campus and address anti-semitism more broadly.

A key recommendation put forward entailed putting up signs in washrooms on campus, which would serve to both highlight that swastika graffiti is prohibited and give students direction in the event that they come across it.

PACBIC members also expressed interest in adding facts about marginalized groups to these signs, which would be part of a larger effort to increase intersectional education within the McMaster community.

Chukky Ibe, McMaster Students Union president, suggested that university courses be created to educate students about the histories of oppressed groups.

“McMaster Hillel believes that the university should provide resources to students which will help educate the campus community on the topic of anti-Semitism, specifically in areas on how to recognize, where to report and what to do if experienced.”

Michal Coret
McMaster Hillel

“We need to talk more about anti-Semitism and marginalized communities and use an academic approach to make an early intervention,” said Ibe.

Another proposal consisted of building a resource identifing anti-semitism through the McMaster Equity and Inclusion Office, which would be similar to the Challenging Islamophobia on Campus Initiative Report published in February 2017, which addressed another form of religious discrimination.

“The EIO, the office of the [McMaster president Patrick Deane], McMaster chaplaincy and other faith-based groups, Student Support and Case Management Office and others will continue to provide education and programs in support of an inclusive community,” said Pilar Michaud, director of human rights and dispute resolution at the EIO.

McMaster Hillel aspires to continue to work with the EIO to combat anti-Semitism.

“Our hope is that the Equity and Inclusion Office will help provide university resources on campus and ensure Jewish students are able to access them when necessary,” said Coret. “We are optimistic that these resources will be available in the near future.”

The university and student groups continue to work together to identify and combat anti-Semitism on campus and in the community.

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Canadian universities are supposed to be diverse and inclusive.

But just a few weeks ago at Ryerson University, a student union vice-president candidate had his poster defaced with “ISIS for life” scribbled across.

This incident of religious discrimination is just one among many across North America, like Swastikas sprayed outside Jewish fraternity houses and shootings of Muslim students near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It’s easy to be apathetic about these events as they seem to pass quickly through the news cycle, simply appearing as a blip on your Twitter feed, just another event happening over there, to other people.

But these events are symptomatic of a wider pattern of religious discrimination and xenophobia that also appears at McMaster. Although many of us may not even notice it, religious discrimination is embedded in our university.

The Silhouette talked to four students to better understand the lived reality of religious discrimination.

Although many of us take freedom from religious discrimination for granted, some students experience it so much that they almost become immune to it.

“As a Jewish person you kinda grow up used to it and you become immune to it,” said Sean Haber, a fourth-year student at McMaster and an active member of the Jewish community on campus.

“Thank god [anti-Semitism] here hasn’t reached the levels it has reached in Europe and some campuses in the states. There has been anti-Semitism on campus, in some ways it’s subtle, in some ways it’s a lack of the university trying to understand the needs of Jewish students,” said Haber.

This subtle discrimination is also a reality for Muslim students.

Sabeen Kazmi, a fourth-year student and active member of the Muslim community says up front personal discrimination is somewhat rare. “Overall generally in my day-to-day life, I don’t really feel like I’m being discriminated against because of my religion. For the most part people have been very interested in learning about me and my religion.”

Institutionalized discrimination

But religious discrimination does not only manifest in person-to-person interactions; it is also woven in to our academic system.

“On an academic level I’ve seen a lot of content that’s been oppressive in many ways. A lot of times professors will teach you things that are not okay. And you can tell right away they don’t have a training that allows them to be anti-oppressive,” explained Kazmi.

“The content, and materials and courseware can sometimes also be very limiting and restrictive, and you don’t really find your own ethnic group represented adequately in most course wares.”

Discrimination can also manifest in the form of not accommodating religious holidays.

“There are accommodations to deal with exams if exams fall on the Sabbath or on holidays. A lot of time that goes teacher by teacher. I can tell you I almost failed first year chem because my midterm was on a holiday and at first he was going to make me just fail it, and after fighting with him for a long time he let me put [that percentage] on the exam,” said Haber.

The problem is that students don’t always feel comfortable reporting this.

“Generally students would kinda be hesitant to go to someone from administration because they’re worried about how it will be handled or if they’ll face repercussions, so they’ll generally come to us and we’ll try to talk to administration, so it’s just important for us to keep those avenues open,” said Ammar Ahmed, President of the McMaster Muslim Students Association.

When asked whether she feels comfortable on campus, Hayley Goldfarb, a third-year student and member of the Jewish community said, “in general yes [I feel comfortable] but there have been specific instances where I definitely didn’t feel comfortable clearly identifying as Jewish on campus, whether that be wearing a Star of David or wearing a shirt with any kind of symbolism on it.”

There is also variation in tolerance and understanding based on faculty.

“From one faculty to the next there might be some differences, because in social science people are more aware of racial discrimination and gender based discrimination,” said Kazmi.

Systemic discrimination also manifests in terms of fewer food options.

“[Kosher food options] are not good at all. There are a few kosher snack options on campus, and bridges has a kosher salad bar,” said Haber.

But although these students say more overt discrimination is rare, McMaster has not been completely exempt.

Overt Discrimination

More intense anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have existed at McMaster, when triggered by specific events.

For instance, Kazmi, a peace activist, says in her role advocating for social change, people critique her because of her religion, rather than her ideas.

“That kind of hate has only happened when I’m in a very particular context at the university… For example, I would be called ignorant, ‘your people are barbaric and therefore I am barbaric too and I should just be thankful that I’m in Canada, and stop stirring up trouble.’ Those are very targeted in that they are talking about my identity as a Muslim and they are not criticizing what I’m advocating for.”

But Kazmi was quick to add that many activists face some kind of discrimination.

“This isn’t something that is unique to my experience as a Muslim woman. I think that most activists or people that are advocating for something out of the norm experience it too,” she said.

Discrimination being triggered by specific events or contexts is part of a wider pattern.

“A lot of anti-Israel action on campus will lead to the silencing bullying and harassment of Jewish students,” said Haber.

In particular, Jewish students experienced anti-Semitism in relation to the Boycott Divestment Sanction vote at last year’s MSU General Assembly.

“I received anti-Semitic messages because of my support for Israel, from strangers. One of them calling me Jewish scum or Zionist scum or something like that and it was all connected to the BDS vote,” said Haber. “That’s a pattern that you see not only at McMaster but at campuses around the world.”

Muslim students also face discrimination when advocating for peace.

“When I’m advocating for anti-war initiatives that’s when people have been really aggressive towards me, and I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels like when I turn on that identity of mine, I become a free target for all, to come and say whatever they want to me,” said Kazmi.

However, preventing discrimination does not mean that critical discussions cannot happen.

“You can criticize the government of Israel and criticize Zionism but it is not okay to criticize people simply because they are Jewish,” said Kazmi.

Fostering religious inclusion

Ultimately, students will need to feel empathy for their peers of different religious beliefs in order to foster a safer environmental for all.

Mac Hillel and the McMaster Muslim Student Association have already worked closely together to combat these issues.

“Hillel and the MSA have a great relationship, and that’s something that needs to go forward when combatting anti-Semitism and islamophobia,” said Haber.

In fact, Haber says there are many commonalities in religious discrimination.

“One of the reasons we’re targeted just in general is because we are different. We stick to our own customs and our own rules… We should be proud of how we make ourselves different and how we stick to whatever religious ideology we have,” said Haber.

The dynamic with interfaith collaboration can be positive and fulfilling.

“We do some work with Hillel, with P2C [Power to Change], and we’re having an event in about a week or so with the Atheist group. The thing is, when you’re working with groups everything is really good because everyone is on the same level ,and we all kind of get it and we like to discuss these topics,” said Ahmed.

“In general, as a student and as a member of society, it’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for everyone. So as a Jew I want to make sure all of my fellow students are comfortable whether that’s in their religion or political beliefs. So in the same way, even if you’re not Jewish, I hope that you would support those who are and hope that they feel comfortable,” said Goldfarb.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not just minor problems; they are barriers to student success.

“For a student that is kind of facing this issue day in and day out it becomes a very suffocating environment for them. They can’t focus entirely on their academics anymore, they are more worried about these other things just because that environment is weighing down on them. It’s honestly a very serious concern if a student is going through that, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Ahmed.

Religious intolerance is not something you may expect to find at a university like McMaster. But as these students have shared, it is a reality many students do in fact face.

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