Recently, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) — a group that claims to restore “pride and integrity” to the Jewish people — came under scrutiny for disrupting a U of T Divest event. U of T Divest was hosting an event addressing Palestinian resistance to what they described as an Israeli occupation. More broadly, U of T Divest promotes the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, pressure the Israeli government politically and economically until it “complies with international law” and respects Palestinian’s “fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination.” The JDL claimed the U of T Divest event was a “call to murder Jews” and heckled a speech given by Noura Erakat, a human rights lawyer speaking at the event.
As a Jewish student, I question the idea that events like the one held by U of T Divest are, in fact, “calls to murder Jews,” or even inherently anti-Semitic. The JDL’s notorious reputation of fear-mongering and spreading hatred also calls into question the integrity of their disruption, and their views should certainly not represent the Jewish faith as a whole. Most importantly, we need to discuss the rights of campus organizations to free speech and freedom from disruption.
The BDS movement is a protest against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, not anti-Semitism itself. The BDS movement provides many criticisms of the Israeli government, addressing actions such as the occupation of Palestinian lands — which has been condemned in international law — and infringing upon the rights of Arab citizens of Israel. It is unfair to make sweeping conflations of those who criticize Israeli government policy, and those who espouse prejudice against Jews. These two groups may certainly overlap at points, but are not necessarily the same.
This fact is perhaps no better demonstrated by how many Jews and Jewish organizations — such as the Jewish Voice for Peace — support the BDS movement.
It is also possible to disagree with critiques of government policy without being anti-Semitic. For instance, in 2013 the American-Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op-ed that disagreed with the BDS movement’s platform, but also urged Jews and Jewish organizations not to consider it an anti-Semitic movement.
I refuse to let a group like JDL speak for me. My religion is one that promotes the pursuit of justice and peace; Verse 18, chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot — “Ethics of the Fathers”, a compilation of teachings and wisdoms of ancient Jewish rabbis and scholars — states that “On three things does the world endure: truth, justice, and peace.”
Propagating violence or hatred is no way to abide by these maxims, yet it appears that the JDL is built more on a foundation of prejudice than of Judaism. The US wing of JDL has been called a “violent extremist Jewish organization” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Most notably, JDL’s leader was arrested and charged in 2001 for planning to bomb a mosque and an Arab-American congressman’s office.
While I do not personally support the BDS movement, I do support the right of all groups on campus to hold events and speak at their causes freely without disturbance. It is only natural to have strong disagreements with other people, but it is wrong to try and censor them. If JDL disagreed with U of T Divest’s platform, then they could have decided to hold their own event explaining the case against BDS, or simply voice their opposition during the question period of the event itself.
Instead, they decided to disrupt the event and show blatant disrespect and disregard for both U of T Divest and their speakers. This was not an exercise in free speech, but a misguided attempt at trying to prevent another group from exercising their rights.
Freedom of speech is a crucial part of our society, both for principled and practical reasons. Not only is it enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but diversity in thought is essential for innovation and encouraging critical thinking. As a Jewish student in a multicultural university, I feel I must not only represent my people, but reach out to students who I may not entirely agree with, but who have just as much a right to speak their minds as I do.
Adina Heisler is a first-year student at University College studying English and women and gender studies.