TORONTO — Jewish campus groups have had their hands full this month trying to advocate for Israel in the face of anti-Israel events and speakers at York University and the University of Toronto.
On Nov. 9, three students arranged to have Noam Chomsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an outspoken critic of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, appear via video conference at York. Three days later, the group Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) held a demonstration at U of T, and on Nov. 29, Norman Finkelstein, known for promoting anti-Israel views and for authoring books such as The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering, will speak at U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
Rebecca Woods Baum, Israel affairs director at Hillel of Greater Toronto, said in an e-mail to The CJN that Hillel looked into the lecture given by Chomsky, who is Jewish, and found that he would be talking about current global issues.
"There was no specific mention of Israel, and while there may be certain opinions of Chomsky's that we may disagree with, we found that this was not being billed as an anti-Israel lecture."
Ben Feferman, senior campus co-ordinator for Hasbara Fellowships, said that even though Chomsky's lecture wasn't about Israel, he wanted to speak out against a person that holds views as offensive as his.
"When we heard, we said we have to do something because of his anti-American views, his anti-Israel views and his support of Holocaust deniers so we went forth with the idea to protest."
After York's administration denied Feferman's request to hold a rally in the school's Vari Hall rotunda because of excessive noise and the potential for confrontations, his group was given permission to hold a tabling campaign to distribute information.
"We had two methods," said Rafi Yablonsky, 21, the president of Hasbara Fellowships at York and a business management student. "We had a method for those who wanted to come by and talk. We had flyers about what Chomsky has said and what he supports. For those who were walking by, we had two huge posters."
The first poster depicted Chomsky sitting with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in May 2006. It read, "Partners in Hate." The other poster presented a quote by Chomsky that said, "I see no anti-Semitic implications in the denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even the denial of the Holocaust."
Yablonsky said his experience was that he was able to have open discussion with those who support Chomsky, but there were others who would scream accusations about Israel and walk away.
"The most heated point was when we got swarmed by a bunch of Hezbollah-supporting people, calling Israel the real terrorist, calling the United States the real terrorist… It was a little intimidating," Feferman said.
Orna Hollander, executive director of Betar Canada, a Zionist student group, said November has been a challenging month for Israel advocacy.
On Nov. 12, SAIA set up an anti-Israel display at U of T, while the group Zionists at U of T, formerly known as Betar, handed out information to counter the one-sidedness of the event.
Hollander said that although U of T's administration had decided to shut the display down because SAIA isn't a recognized campus group and didn't bother to go through proper procedures to set up its display, SAIA ignored the order and went ahead with its event anyway.
As for the Finkelstein lecture, titled "Israel and Palestine: Roots of conflict, prospects for peace," Baum questioned Finkelstein's credibility as a scholar, as he was recently denied tenure at Chicago's DePaul University, had his only course cancelled and has since left the school.
"Many issues related to Finkelstein's work have been raised regarding factual inaccuracies, omissions and selective mention of facts. He has been accused of relying heavily on anti-Israel sources, often ignoring any evidence to the contrary, even by critics of Israel," she said.
But Baum said that rather than call more attention to the event, Hillel is trying to focus on "positive programming that strives toward a better understanding and dialogue about the situation in Israel."
Meanwhile, Hollander and Feferman are working together to make sure that students will have access to information from both sides of the conflict.
"If we choose not to be there, there really isn't anyone giving out our information in what we believe," Hollander said.
Finkelstein – who, despite having parents who are Holocaust survivors, has accused Jews of exploiting the Holocaust for political gain – was invited to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the Canadian Palestinian Educational Exchange, a group that advocates for Palestinian refugees.
Hollander said it's important to defend Israel against one-sided accusations.
"A lot of times on campus, if someone is talking about Palestinian refugees, and all you're talking about is the wonderful innovations about Israel, it is really not dealing with the subject matter."
She said that Betar and Hasbara are in the process of booking tables at OISE, where the lecture is scheduled to take place, but even if they can't book tables, they still plan to be present to hand out information.
She said she also plans to have students at the Finkelstein lecture to monitor what is said and to ask questions that challenge his claims.
Feferman said he is not calling on OISE to cancel the event, because he values free speech.
"There is value to these people coming, for others to see that there are crazy people who, in 2007, are questioning whether six million people died in the Holocaust… I think we need to be aware of it."