As goes the college campus, so goes the world, for Jews and the state of Israel alike. It should come as no surprise that once again, a University is embroiled in a controversy about the rights of Jewish students to express their support for Israel, without fear or prejudice. While Hasbara Fellowships has been successful in overturning motions prohibiting pro-Israel student clubs from participating in student events (and successfully suing the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in 2016) as well as supporting Jewish students in voting down multiple BDS motions at both Canadian and U.S. Universities, the track record is mixed, and as soon as one motion is defeated, another one pops up somewhere else. It is impossible to keep up with the changes. And this is just in Canada. The situation is equally dire in the U.S. and abroad where attempts to shut down speakers or pass motions vilifying Israel and Jews continue to move forward. The recent rejection of BDS by the Columbia students’ association is but a small victory while, at the same time, Trinity College in Dublin has just endorsed BDS. Similarly, the State of Massachusetts has just voted down an anti-BDS motion (that has already been passed in twenty states) and would have prohibited any state agency from conducting business with any private company that discriminates on the basis of national origin which, by implication, includes Israel. This would have forced companies to think twice before contemplating boycotting Israel if they also wished to do state business. The motion failed presumably because it was seen as “anti-free speech”, but also because the Boston Jewish Federation leadership presumably did not do enough to ensure support among some key non-Jewish groups, who either abstained or misapprehended the bill, and voted against it.
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Hasbara Fellowships Canada or the most recent attack on one of our own recent Hasbara Fellows—Ari Blaff, who is currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs– by a Professor Hanssen who in response to Ari’s request for some academic guidance, accused him, as a former Hasbara fellow, of being an “agent of the Israeli government”, and refused to meet with him. The story has hit the press already, and many of you may have already received and signed a petition demanding the University of Toronto censure the Professor and more.
Two things are striking about this story. The first is the gross mischaracterization of Hasbara Fellowships as an agent of the Israeli state, and Ari Blaff as a hapless 007 operative, hence the Professor’s sanctimonious refusal to meet the student on “ethical and academic grounds.” The second is more troubling and brings me to the heart of this message. That in the year 2018, (not 1938), that a student as bright and well-educated as Ari Blaff, who has been admitted to a prestigious graduate program at a world class University, who is empowered and competent and demonstrably resourceful enough to reach out to several professors to discuss his Ph.D. program, can be so vulnerable to attack , not by an outsider or an enemy combatant, but by one of his own Professors, in whom he placed his trust. The student was denied his basic humanity and right to be treated with dignity and respect by an arrogant person in power. And what was Ari’s recourse? To say or do nothing? What could he do on his own. He was powerless, helpless, and utterly alone. So, he went to the press. And to us.
If someone as talented and capable as Ari Blaff needs our help, then imagine what it is like out there for other Jewish and non-Jewish students alike who dare support Israel. I am not an alarmist, nor am I playing the “victim” card. Ari is no victim, but he has been blindsided, willfully attacked and maligned by a Professor in his own department. Not unlike being the victim of an “honour killing” by your father, for daring to wear lipstick or express your opinion.
We are Hasbara Fellowships Canada. More than education. Less than confrontation. Hineni. We are here. We are here for Ari. We are here for you. Our mission is to keep both Jewish and non-Jewish students on campus safe. In doing so, we strive to make the world a safer place for everyone. In 2018 and beyond.
–by Dr. Jack Muskat, Chair, Hasbara Fellowships, Toronto, Canada, April 2018