::The Ottawa Citizen
In recent years, Ottawa’s Jewish community has received troubling reports from Jewish students and faculty. These concerns are by no means unique to Carleton University, and indeed have been mirrored on other campuses across Canada at which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proven a flashpoint. The common denominator is that anti-Israel activism has all too often devolved into intimidation, bully tactics, and even — on very rare occasions — the use of force. That Jewish students usually bear the brunt of this comes as no surprise.
It’s important to understand what this issue is most decidedly not about: the debate over the Middle East. Students from all backgrounds can and should be able to openly challenge one another in a respectful, academic manner on this and other contentious issues. If anything, a university is precisely the place for vigorous discussions around matters of controversy. This is not only a matter of free speech, but the very crux of higher learning.
The real issue is not the difficult debates; rather, that the aggressive tactics used by a marginal group of anti-Israel activists threatens to taint the environment in which those debates can thrive. On various campuses, small groups of students (and sometimes outside activists) have used harassment and intimidation to disrupt presentations in shared spaces, breaking campus codes in the process. In March of 2011, anti-Israel protesters forcibly shut down a meeting of Carleton’s Board of Governors in an attempt to force a boycott of Israel onto the university — an effort that ultimately failed.
This setback, however, has not shaken the commitment of activists to demonize Israel and its supporters, regardless of the damage to the broader student community. Their aim is clear: not to challenge or refute those with whom they disagree, but to drown them out and shut them down altogether. This situation is unacceptable for students and parents paying hard-earned tuition, for taxpayers subsidizing institutions, and ultimately for university administrations.
Two years ago, Carleton’s president, Roseann O’Reilly Runte, took the bold step of creating a Commission on Inter-Cultural, Inter-Religious and Inter-Racial Relations on Campus to gain insight into the experience of various groups on campus, including Jewish students. On Oct. 10, the Commission released its report, which confirmed what Ottawa’s Jewish community has long known — that Jewish students at Carleton face a number of challenges that often result in their feeling uncomfortable on campus. Among other findings, the report cited a campus survey that shows Jewish student respondents as having the highest rate of experiencing negative treatment in the past year on the basis of their background. This is particularly troubling given the report’s recognition that, in select cases, some faculty members have misused their position as trusted academic authorities to promote a one-sided political message in the classroom.
The creation of this commission and the report’s release are important not only for Carleton but for Canadian academia as a whole. We are under no illusions that the recommendations will solve every problem on campus, but they certainly are a step in the right direction toward making Carleton a better place for all students.
Carleton is now in a position to be a model for universities across the country looking to enhance civility on campus — not just in the conversation about the Middle East, but when it comes to contentious debates on myriad issues. Every campus facing similar challenges stands to learn something from the commission’s report. The result would be a more open, inclusive, and enriched atmosphere for all students. For contributing so much to this important objective that will help preserve the quality of Canadian education, Runte deserves much credit.
Zane Colt is the citywide president of the Israel Awareness Committee and past-president (Carleton) of Hillel Ottawa.