Pro-Israel for good reasons

Over the years at this university, a number of people have approached me asking how a Chinese atheist came to be the president of a pro-Israel group on campus. Certainly at face value, this curiosity is understandable. But at the same time, it is symptomatic of a sad state of affairs on this and many other campuses. Because there is nothing controversial or peculiar about one’s support for Israel: it is a liberal democratic country that affords rights to all its citizens. As liberal-minded Canadians, it follows that we should sympathize with a country agreeable to our own values, just as we do with democratic allies such as the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and India.

That most students don’t realize how self-evident a stand with Israel should be is probably due to events like Israel Apartheid Week. It is unfortunate that on this campus, the first thoughts that come to students’ minds when Israel is brought up is a week devoted to negative portrayals and slander. As another Israel Apartheid Week comes and goes, this campus’ diverse student body ought to try a thought experiment: how would you feel if an organization devoted an entire week to the vilification of your home country? Would it be productive to the discussion of serious issues, or would it simply incite racial tensions and anger? How fair would it be if profession of your patriotism was labelled as “racist?”

As a person of Chinese descent proud of his cultural and national roots, I am confident that if this university held a series of events focussing on criticisms of the Chinese state, students would balk in disgust. They would no doubt acknowledge the multiplicity of political and social issues surrounding China that need to be discussed, and would protest the lack of balance and objectivity. This analogy extends to all states, including Israel.

Some will object to my characterization of Israel Apartheid Week. They will argue that it does indeed promote discussion, and does so in an objective and balanced manner. Perhaps an account of my experiences can put such objections into perspective. In November, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, the sponsors of Israel Apartheid Week, held a public forum to discuss Israel’s security fence. At the forum, I made a public overture for dialogue, stating that students on this campus would love to have a discussion on Israel with all opinions voiced and heard. The proposal was immediately rejected. It turns out that SAIA was not interested in dialogue with ideologically differing students, because these students were “racist.” I was later accosted by some of the students present at the forum and asked if I knew the whereabouts of a Ku Klux Klan meeting, the implication being that support of Israel was tantamount to racism.

This was not an isolated incident. Two years ago, Israel Apartheid Week included a lecture by an Israeli Member of Knesset on the subject of Israeli democracy. When dissenting students, myself included, asked questions critical of the lecture’s content, we were booed by the audience. Loud chants of “shame” erupted to the point where we knew we were not welcome at the event.

Although SAIA events are open to the public, SAIA routinely bars the media from taking pictures or making video recordings. SAIA meetings, which are advertised as all-inclusive, have ideological litmus tests. I know this because I have attempted to sit in on their meetings, with the end result being outrage and contempt directed toward myself and my peers.

If the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week intend to stimulate intellectual exchange and objectivity, their actions beg to differ. They have shown, through intimidation and verbal assaults, secrecy and hostility, and that they do not care much for discourse on this campus. It is ironic that while the rights of free speech permit their events to occur, they have no problem silencing their opponents with ad hominem arguments and the discouragement of criticism from dissidents and journalists.

Joshua Xiong is the President of Zionists @ University of Toronto

Apartheid is not dead

“Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories appear so similar to the apartheid of an earlier era, a continent away, and I believe it is very important we in the United Nations use this term,” says Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the current serving president of the United Nations General Assembly. “We must not be afraid to call something for what it is…Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations.”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, initiated by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005, is a growing peaceful campaign demanding that Israel comply with international law by ending its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, grant equal rights to all of its citizens irrespective of race or religion, and allow Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland, as stipulated under UN Resolution 194.

This year, Israeli Apartheid Week, organized to further the BDS movement on campuses, is taking place concurrently in over 40 cities worldwide, including campuses in the West Bank, South Africa, and Britain. Complete with lectures, multimedia presentations, cultural performances, art showings, film screenings, and demonstrations, IAW unites the growing chorus of voices identifying Israel as an apartheid state.

Apartheid, meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, was a term used to describe the legislated racial segregation of pre-1994 South Africa. Under the regime of “grand apartheid,” and especially with the introduction of the 1950 Group Areas Act, white South Africans forced the displacement and denationalization of large numbers of indigenous black South Africans. The subsequent concentration of these black South Africans into a series of cramped, nominally autonomous “Bantustans” led to the creation of a white majority “democracy” within the remaining 87 per cent of the South African state.

This story is all too familiar to Palestinians who, during the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, saw the forced expulsion of 800,000 of their own people and the destruction of over 430 towns and villages. Today, Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—the West Bank and Gaza—confront a complex network of checkpoints, walls, roadblocks, curfews, Jewish-only roads, and other tools designed to Bantustanize and ghettoize over 3.5 million Palestinians into less than 20 per cent of their historic homeland.

The establishment of this system of grand apartheid in Israel, which mirrors the South African system, has managed to create a Jewish majority in Israel and thereby artificially construct an ethnic “democracy” by displacing the majority indigenous population. The roughly 1.2 million Palestinians who remain nominal “citizens” of Israel face legislated discrimination in land-ownership, family law, and citizenship rights, while over three million Palestinian refugees expelled from historic Palestine continue to be denied the right to return.

Some have argued that the title of apartheid belongs solely to the case of South Africa. However, this is not true as the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted in 1976, defines apartheid as a universal crime that could be committed by other states as well. Uri Davis’ book Apartheid Israel provides an in-depth analysis of the links between South African and Israeli apartheid. It is very telling that colonial states with surviving indigenous populations—like Israel, Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand—all refused to sign on to the apartheid convention insisting that the crime only applied to South Africa.

Students Against Israeli Apartheid (a working group of OPIRG-Toronto) is encouraging all students to stand against our university’s support for Israeli apartheid and racism in all its forms. To get involved today, and for a full listing of IAW events and speakers, visit or contact

Saron Ghebressellassi and Faraz Vahid Shahidi are both members of Students Against Israeli Apartheid @ UofT, and are volunteers at the Ontario Public Interest Research Group-Toronto.

Heroically Misguided

Why should I care? That’s the question I kept asking myself during Watchmen, director Zack Snyder’s 163-minute, $100-million adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. The question Watchmen fans will want to know is if Snyder and company “screwed it up,” and they haven’t (the film is surprisingly faithful to its dense, bleak source material), but having read the book and seen the movie, I’m not sure the original was worth such reverent treatment in the first place. “Somebody’s pickin’ out costumed heroes,” says Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a Travis Bickle-like avenger in an overcoat and inkblot-patterned mask. The grave solemnity of this line’s delivery points to Watchmen’s central flaw: it ignores the fundamental absurdity of the premise.

In an alternate America circa 1985, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth presidential term and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Crime and debauchery plague the streets as the costumed heroes that once kept them clean have been outlawed (Watchmen skirts between anti-Nixon leftism and the pseudo-fascism of the vigilantes, and the ideological incoherence is troubling). Rorschach is the only hero still on the prowl, but when his former colleague The Comedian is killed, he fears a conspiracy will wipe out the other ex-crimefighters, including Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who is in reality Adrian Veidt, the only superhero to reveal his identity. Looming as an intimidating presence over the superhero community and the world at large, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has become an actual atomic superman during a freak accident, with awesome powers used to end the Vietnam War.

Watchmen has been touted as a deconstruction of the superhero genre—these heroes have angst, moral qualms with vigilantism, erectile dysfunctions, etc. But again…why should I care? The film and the book present the existential crises of costumed heroes with as much gravity as The Passion of the Christ, which would be interesting, I suppose, if superheroes were real. Because heroes like these are such an intrinsically absurd notion, I find it hard to care about and relate to their problems. I know you’re thinking about The Dark Knight, but that film tried to show how a single comic book hero could exist in a very realistic (and thus relatable) universe, while the hero-infested 1985 of Watchmen is downright surreal. I was reminded of The Incredibles, a film that made similar material infinitely more relatable by treating it lightly.

No review of Watchmen is complete without discussing its ending, which has been altered from the book but still retains its central philosophical dilemma [spoilers ahoy]. Without giving too much away, it involves an apocalyptic scenario hinged upon Dr. Manhattan, which leads our heroes into an important moral issue with potential world peace hanging in the balance.

Some have viewed this ending as posing a deep philosophical quandary, but the situation itself is about as relatable as the type of outlandish pseudo-profundities unleashed by a stoned philosophy student: ‘Okay, dude, imagine this—there’s an apocalyptic scenario involving an atomic weapon who is inherently human with free will, dude.’ Well, since the idea of an atomic weapon with free will is inherently ridiculous, why should I care? Putting this aside, I’m leery about the ends-justify-the-means implications of the scenario, and resent the suggestion that it would bring peace when two world wars and a Holocaust couldn’t. (Might I suggest that in the militaristic, Nixonian universe of this film, such an event would only inspire increased nuclear paranoia, not to mention uproar over the government that created the weapon?) [End spoilers.]

Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have done an adequate job adapting a complicated book into a workable screenplay. The key scenes are here, with the biggest cut being the newsvendor/comic-within-the-comic scenes (which will reportedly surface on an extended DVD). Yet perhaps the film is too faithful: every shot has a glowing, artificial sheen similar to Snyder’s 300, suggesting that the director is so reverent to the material that he’s not only presenting the comic book panels, but polishing and laminating them (if ever there was a futuristic universe that deserved a gritty, Blade Runner-style treatment, it’s this one). The film is simply a prettier, shorter version of the comic with a more problematic ending. Why should I care?

Rating: VV

Q&A: Malin Akerman

North Toronto’s own Malin Akerman, whose memorable appearance in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was a key moviegoing moment for many a teenage boy, has her showiest and most demanding role yet in Watchmen playing Laurie Jupiter (a.k.a the Silk Spectre), the conflicted lover of Dr. Manhattan. In an interview, she revealed to The Varsity the triumphs and tribulations of acting in a much-awaited adaptation.

The Varsity: What kind of a director is Zack Snyder?

Malin Akerman: If you meet Zack Snyder, within three minutes you’re sold on whatever he’s selling you, because he’s so passionate, and he’s so smart, and he has such a vision for things. You automatically become enthralled and you know you’ve got a real reader at the helm, which is what you need, especially for something like this.

TV: There is a lot of green-screen work in this film. Did you do a lot of your own stunts?

MA: We did 95 per cent of the stunts. All the fight sequences that you saw, they would film us doing it and film our stunt doubles doing it. So basically, two months before shooting I started a boot-camp with an ex-Navy SEAL to try to gain some muscle mass and try to feel more like a strong fighter, and then a month before shooting we shipped off to Vancouver and started all the fight training. The fight training continued throughout the whole six months of the shoot, which was pretty gruesome and also pretty awesome.

TV: Did you ever feel constricted by playing a well-known character with an already well-established history?

MA: One of the challenges was, because there is this source material, you not only have the history of your character but you also have the visuals, so even seeing the body language of her and the other characters was a challenge and helpful all at once.

Often when you go into a role you have to go into all the back-stories yourself, and here it was all written for you. There wasn’t any improv involved whatsoever, and I am used to doing a lot of improv with all the other characters and roles just to make it your own, but here there has to be allegiance to the novel. So you have to figure out why exactly that person is saying a line in such a way.

TV: Because it’s a comic book movie, did you ever feel tempted to play the role campy or over-the-top?

MA: These characters are so real, so it’s much easier to play them real than it is to play up the [potentially campy] genre of the film. But for sure there are certain moments where [you think], “Alright, we’ve gotta be sure not to make this silly because we’re standing here in our costumes.” So those were the moments where I was like, “Alright Zack, you’ve gotta gauge this scene and make sure that it doesn’t go onto the campy side of things.”

Feeling the music

“It’s definitely a show that we’re going to remember,” says Fox Jaws guitarist and singer Daniel Allen. The band is set to showcase their diverse and intricate tunes tonight at Clinton’s Tavern, at a concert accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired.

The concert, presented by Ryerson University’s Center of Learning Technology and the Science of Music Auditory Research and Technology Lab, will feature vibrating emoti-chairs, closed-captioning, and interpreters, to expand and transpose the music for those who may not otherwise be able to fully experience a live show. The emoti-chair plays with the idea of vibrations, breaking apart the vibrations of the different instruments and vocals to make physical the auditory experience, imitating the subtleties and intricacies of a live performance.

The idea arose from Ryerson’s Alternative Sensory Information Displays project, a study devoted to finding alternative methods for reinterpreting and transposing sensory information—especially in the fields of music, background or environmental sounds, and vocal tones and intonations. Though the chair resembles something out of a classic monster movie—an imposing piece of equipment, with a high and angular support system, and tubes that wrap around the seated person—its purpose is to convey the emotional and visceral core of a musical experience.

“We’re kind of a mixed lot as far as the music goes,” continues Daniel. “I mean, we have your fast upbeat songs which are sort of anxious, and we’ve also got slow, soundscape songs. You get a bit of everything with us—but maybe it’ll be too much for people.”

Fox Jaws’ latest album, Goodbye Doris, is set at a frantic pace, with interlocking, heartfelt vocals, making Fox Jaws a prime example of musicians who tap into the visceral emotive quality that researchers at Ryerson want to evoke. And though there have been a few test runs, this concert will be the first time that the emoti-chairs are employed at a live musical venue, apart from a controlled scientific environment.

“It’s going to be a big surprise for everyone involved,” says Allen. “There could be backlash, who knows. But it’s definitely going to be interesting, and I think our music will be great for the experiment. We play around with different styles, so they’ll really get to have a buffet of sounds during our set.”

Hearing impaired or not, all are welcome to test the new equipment. “We’re going to go into it like any other show,” says Allen. “Ultimately, you just want to play the best you can, for everyone—those who can hear, and for those who can’t.”

Fox Jaws, Treestar, The Dufraines, Hollywood Swank, and more play the Concert for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on Thursday, March 5 at Clinton’s Tavern (693 Bloor Street West). Doors are at 8 p.m., and tickets are $5 at the door.

Meet the underdogs

Perry Darkwa – Candidate for VP internal

The Varsity: Why should students vote for you?

Perry Darkwa: I’m independent. I think that I offer a different perspective. My platform is that we should be focusing on the fundamentals and not hemorrhaging funds for wasteful endeavours.

TV: What are your other priorities?

PD: Parking is a hassle. Overhaul it, give parking reimbursements, or find other ways for students to park at U of T.

I want to renegotiate our health and dental coverage, perhaps expand it. If not, then at least reduce the fees. I also want to look at the Metropass and also lower the cost for that as well.

TV: What experience do you bring to the table?

PD: I don’t have experience in student government, but I think that’s a strength. I talked to a lot of people—one of the major concerns is that a lot of students don’t feel like they’re being heard. I can offer a perspective that starts from the ground up, as opposed to looking downwards from the top.

TV: You’re running as an independent, up against two slates. Do you feel left out?

PD: I definitely feel left out. I’m there to offer a third voice. You have two slates, Access and Change. Most of Access are incumbents. They’re more of the same. I know a lot of Change have been involved with student government and have a lot of experience. I’m removed from the process and I see things very differently.

TV: Anything else you’d like to add?

PD: I’m a third-year economics and math student. I’m from Trinity. Make sure to vote for me.

Brittany Silvestri – Candidate for VP equity

The Varsity: Why should students vote for you?

Brittany Silvestri: Equity is my passion. It’s not only about accessibility on campus, but into certain groups. For example, someone can come to me with an equity issue and get access to UTSU, which hasn’t been happening recently.

TV: What are your priorities?

BS: My priorities are specifically working with youth and university students with disabilities, to make sure that they have access to not only clubs but also organizations and classes. I work with autistic children through a program called Reach for the Rainbow—we integrate them into sports programs. We can learn so much from people that are not only cognitively but also physically disabled.

TV: What experience do you bring to the table?

I’m an active member of LGBTOUT and I want to expand the positive space campaign. If you notice the stickers, they’re just on the corner of office doors and right now they don’t mean very much.

I already work on the issues I would undertake as VP equity. In Mississauga, I work with elementary schools to make sure their student groups are run equitably.

I think our current VP Equity has done an amazing job with racialized and anti-discrimination campaigns. I definitely want to take what she’s gained from the Taskforce Against Racism and apply all the policy that’s been created. [Note: The taskforce is having its first U of T meeting today at the Bahen Centre, at 5 p.m.]

TV: You’re running as an independent, up against two slates. Do you feel left out?

BS: Not in the debate forum, but I felt left out when The Varsity ran [coverage on] the two slates and totally left me out. The only reason why I did run independently is because my beliefs don’t coincide with either idea. I’m sitting in the middle.

It’s great to say, “we demand access.” A single group demanding access from the administration is one thing, but I believe that students should demand access from that group, which is predominantly people being re-elected. We haven’t, as a student body, had access to UTSU all year.

The idea of change is a great idea and it works for almost every other position. But we don’t need to change in equity. We need accessibility and inclusiveness, but definitely not change—we’re on the right road already. To take everything that’s been learned and worked for already and throw that aside, that isn’t the right answer either.

TV: Anything else you’d like to add?

BS: Vote for me!

Freshly Pressed: What to spin on your stereo

Acres of Lions – Working (Cordova Bay Records)

Emotive vocals and pop-punk sensibilities collide on Working, the full-length debut from Victoria, B.C.’s Acres of Lions. Channeling the introspective balladeering of bands like Snow Patrol and Motion City Soundtrack, the album’s ten songs are a collection of moody, atmospheric guitars and rhythmic power-pop.

Jeffrey Kalesnikoff’s vocals dominate the mix, bringing a tortured quality to the record—so much that even the band’s most energetic efforts like “Dance Sequence” and “December” are anything but uplifting. Instead, the prevailing mood is one of quiet suffering. Kalesnikoff’s tortured croon makes songs like “Best Day Ever” and the title track sound sentimental, if not downright mushy.

The hooks are decent enough, with multi-instrumentalist Tyson Yerex contributing captivating guitar and synthesizer accompaniment, but the band seems too reliant on similar melodies and phrasings. “Entertainment” begins in earnest with a smooth and attractive guitar line, but slowly meanders into a radio-repulsive six-minute oblique wall of sound, losing the listener in the process.

Overall, Working is an uneven effort, torn between its complex and introspective vocals and heavily layered composition. Acres of Lions are a talented young band, but there are kinks to be ironed out before they return to the studio. —Luke Savage

Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk)

Great Lake Swimmers lead singer Tony Dekker has one of the most distinctive voices in Canadian music. On the bright side, it clearly identifies Lost Channels as Dekker’s work within the first few seconds of lead track “Palmistry.” Yet despite a drastic lineup change since their self-titled 2003 debut, Lost Channels sounds like any other Great Lake Swimmers album.

The band’s outdoorsy charm is maintained through the album’s non-traditional recording venues, which include St. Brendan’s Church in tiny Rockport, Ontario, and Singer Castle on Chippewa Bay’s Dark Island.

The haunting echoes of Lost Channels work magic on the voice of local songwriter Serena Ryder, who appears for the tender duet “Everything is Moving So Fast.” The wistful guitar ballads continue with “Concrete Heart,” which features shout-outs to the CN Tower and Toronto Public Library as if they were stops on a rural road trip. But Dekker sounds impossibly far away as he contemplates bittersweet life and love in Toronto, as emotionally distant from the city as we are from the wilds of Ontario.

The stand out track is the confessional “River’s Edge,” on which Dekker muses, “If it’s good and it’s true/Let it wash over you/Untethered and without reason.” As the embodiment of this simple entreaty, Lost Channels is quietly satisfying work, well worth a listen. —Shoshana Wasser

Exec hopefuls duke it out at candidates’ forum

Two slates and two solo candidates are battling for the top spots at the University of Toronto Students’ Union. At University College on Tuesday, slate Access and slate Change went head-to-head, presenting their platforms and challenging their opponents.

Incumbent Sandy Hudson named her accomplishments as helping to avoid a staff strike and continuing to push for lower tuition fees.

“We have to start walking over to Queens Park, not Simcoe Hall. We need to tell Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to drop our fees,” responded Jason Marin for slate Change.

Both candidates said they would work on engaging and involving students on campus. Unlike past years, the debate gathered a packed room, with students spilling onto stairs and the hallway. Most questions were pointed, and directed at one of the slates.

When asked about the lack of diversity on his slate, Marin’s response generated booming applause. “I’m a gay Costa Rican Jew. I think that’s pretty diverse.”

The night’s first controversial question, on UTSU’s position towards the Canadians Federation of Students, was pitched to candidates for VP external, James Finlay of Change and Hadia Akhter of Access.

“I believe U of T and its students should be put first. I will consult the student body before I fight for something alongside the CFS,” said Finlay.

Akhter drew the first difference between the slates, saying she will work on a case-by-case basis.

“Often you can’t put U of T first and CFS second. If the interest is the same for both, then I will move alongside the CFS.”

The CFS has spurred controversy on Ontario campuses across Ontario after York University’s student president went to a CFS rally during the recent CUPE strike.

Incumbent UTSU execs maintain strong ties with the CFS. Three members of Access are seeking re-election: Sandy Hudson, Adnan Najmi, and Adam Awad.

The VP internal debate, among incumbent Adnan Najmi of Access, Mike Maher of Change, and Perry Darkwa, grew heated.

A student challenged Najmi when he said he would create a student housing review site, judging from the UTSU website. Najmi responded that the website is in the midst of an upgrade.

The three disagreed on how to increase clubs funding.

Mike Maher outlined Change’s proposed funding increase of 20 per cent, and said money could be funnelled into clubs by cutting printing costs. Asked to clarify, Maher referred to a budget on Change’s website. The budget has since been removed after it failed to get approval from the chief returning officer.

Both Najmi and Darkwa said it was impossible to promise a certain amount of money.

Change’s proposed $1,100 cut to each exec’s salary, to create a scholarship for student leaders, also created tension. Najmi argued that it would affect UTSU performance.

French Club president Antonin Mongeau was a noted presence at the debate, speaking out of turn several times. Mongeau went to the mike to respond to Najmi when he spoke about clubs funding and mentioned Mongeau’s name, prompting protest from members of the Black Students Association, whose president is running for VP equity on the Access slate.

Sustainability figured prominently for the VP internal candidates. Andreas Kloppenborg of Change announced his plans to create a VP of sustainability for next year.