Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rashomon at York

[M]y pamphlet was quite uninfluenced by the teacher, perhaps on this point, indeed, I showed all too great a scrupulosity; from my words one might have thought nobody had ever inquired into the case before, and I was the first to interrogate those who had seen or heard of the mole, the first to correlate the evidence, the first to draw conclusions. When later I read the schoolmaster's pamphlet--it had a very circumstantial title: "A mole, larger in size that ever seen before"--I found that we actually did not agree on certain important points, though we both believed we had proved our main point, namely, the existence of the mole. These differences prevented the establishment of the friendly relations with the schoolmaster that I had been looking forward to in spite of everything. --Franz Kafka, The Village Schoolmaster (1915)

Police were also summoned after a Jewish student was physically assaulted on campus after confronting a group protesting Israeli polices [sic]. It's the latter...that is most illuminating. I haven't been able to verify that it happened at all; everyone I spoke to said that they'd heard about it, but had nothing to offer beyond hearsay and rumour. Nevertheless, the reports of a student being assaulted, even if it was only a minor scuffle, has the Jewish community at York rattled, and rightly so. Such an assault would cross a line that has been very much thinned by the recent heated protests, but which has remained a line nonetheless. If it has been crossed, then it's a whole new ball game, and it speaks to how poisonous the York campus has become for Jews that they are so readily willing to accept this unconfirmed story. No one is shocked at the thought. Indeed, the prevailing sense is one of resignation, of knowing that it was bound to happen sooner or later. Whether or not it has is almost immaterial in that sense – the fact that so many of York's Jewish students feel it could happen is proof enough of a ruinous environment and a fundamentally broken relationship between the students and their university.--Matt Gurney, National Post

I've been fascinated by the tangled tale--tales, rather--about what happened at York University on February 11. And for some reason I'm reminded of Kafka's story of the giant mole that exists only in pamphlets and comments, and Akira Kurasawa's masterpiece, with all of the contradictory witnesses and their competing narratives,
which I'll get to in a moment.

I juxtapose an excerpt from Kafka with a piece by Matt Gurney in the National Post because in some ways they are so strikingly similar. Just as the mole never appears in the Kafka story, only a growing (and conflicting) series of accounts of it, so too is the case with a widely-reported incident on the York campus before the February 11 imbroglio. In fact, Gurney, perhaps unwittingly, espouses a surprisingly postmodern view of the construction of history: there are no underlying "objective" events, only accounts of events, and, indeed, the issue of whether an event "really happened" is immaterial.

Back to Kurasawa. I've always thought that
Rashomon was about the construction of history, too, and it was pretty postmodern stuff for 1950. And Kafka was at it 35 years earlier. I've seen this sort of thing on the ground, on the West Indian island of Bequia, where no event, however recent, seemed grounded, where no two stories about an occurrence ever seemed to jibe. In fact they were sometimes startlingly different. The characters, the when and where, the supposedly solid details of "something that happened" all shifted and blurred.

This is the quicksand upon which we build our authoritative accounts. And nowhere is that quicksand more treacherous than university campuses when the Middle East comes up for, well, discussion.

I'm not making light of the passions involved. Readers know that I can wax passionate on the subject myself. But this is not an article about the Middle East. Rather, my intent is to sketch out the radical uncertainty at the heart of what we are pleased to call "events," and the manner in which conflicting accounts are inevitably swept up into larger narratives. In a very real sense, we can watch history being made when we look at the discourses of February 12th at York University. And, like the proverbial sausage, the knowledge can make one queasy.

I just happen to like sausages.

Note on method: except to explain references, I am letting others tell their own stories, with a minimum of commentary on my part. I'll write an ending, if not a conclusion.

A Jewish student.

Anyways, as I arrived at the Hillel
[a campus club for Jewish students --DD] I was told that a press conference was to be held on the 3rd floor of the Student Center in regards to the Drop YFS [York Federation of students --DD] campaign. A campaign where numerous student groups on campus, some of which are Jewish got together and collected signatures from over 10% of the student population, which is somewhere between 40,000 - 50,000 students, in order to impeach the current student government over their support of the union which went on strike in November and effectively locked-out all students on campus for 3 months.

The student government on the other hand went on the defensive and stated that the reason why the groups involved with the petition to rid them from office was because we as Jews were upset that they passed a resolution condemning Israel for their action in Gaza. Keep in mind that a large majority of the student government is comprised of students who are pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel supporters. The petition did not come about for that reason, while outside politics should not be something that a student government should concern themselves with during a strike which is keeping students out of classes, the petition came about because of the lack of action and commitment to the students during the strike.

So anyways, the Drop YFS campaign was successful and the required signatures were collected, and as a result of the strike, the local media who is constantly interested with the University and will probably be so for the rest of this school year, were invited to a press conference to talk about the campaign and what was done. The press conference as mentioned earlier was being held in a smaller room in the Student Center that may have had a maximum capacity of 50-60 individuals in a standing room style setting. The press conference was open to any and all students who wished to attend and quickly the room began to fill and when it reached capacity there were still close to 100 more students outside who wanted to come in, and the crowd was growing.

While the next bit of information may seem irrelevant, trust me it is.

Anyways, of those who were inside the room the composition of those inside was a mix of students, there were Jewish students, African Canadian students, South Asian students, Asian students, and Middle Eastern students. As the crowd outside became unruly, it became apparent that the crowd outside were students who would consider themselves pro-Palestinian supporters, and were the same students who opposed the Drop YFS campaign. Of those who were inside the room there was a mixed group of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students of which from both groups some were pro-Drop YFS and some were anti-Drop YFS. But with help from some students, the mob was held back at the door for fear of a fire hazard and it was decided that the press conference was to begin.

Also, just before the press conference started, a Middle Easter pro-Palestinian supporter shouted out loud right next to me, "Let the Colored people in." To which an African Canadian student showed her disgust with this comment and stated to a friend of mine that maybe this pro-Palestinian supporter also wants to place them in the back corner as well. And, after this pro-Palestinian supporter made this comment he followed it up with, "Maybe if my friends bleach their skin they'll be let inside." This comment grew equal disgust as the first by the other students standing around him.

Two minutes into the press conference, loud shouts from outside the room of "Let us in!" and "Zionism is racism," with heavy banging on the walls prompted an immediate halt to the press conference, out of fear that the room may be rushed and people may be hurt. A reasonable response for the situation that was occurring outside of this room.

Now let me preface the rest with me saying that I am a big supporter of free speech and I don't care if there students on campus who wish to support Palestine and even shout anti-Israel slogans but with what happened next went a step beyond free speech and what was said and the actions taken by this individuals bordered on hate speech and discrimination.

As the room was letting out numerous students with cameras, as well as media present, were taking pictures of what was going on outside of the room where the press conference was being held. I myself who always has a camera and likes taking pictures of these types of events proceeded to do the same. The Middle Eastern student who was shouting the racial slurs earlier stepped in front of where I was taking pictures/videos of what was occurring and when he realized what I was doing, and I believe it was only because I was wearing my Yarmulke (Jewish skull cap), he told me that if I take his picture, that he will take my camera and smash it. He only issued this threat to me and no other student so I believe I am fair to state that this threat to break my camera was only done so because I was Jewish and that I am therefore guilty due to association.

So as the Jewish students proceeded up the stairs to the Hillel lounge the crowd that gathered proceeded to shout anti-Israel slogans at us such as "Zionism is Racism." To which I did not care because like I said, in the nature of free speech, each person is entitled to it, and did not think anything of it. And, about ten minutes later is when things began to grow really ugly.

As the mob did not disperse, on the third floor, a worker in the Hillel decided that it was best to lock the door of the Hillel, and only let the Jewish students inside until the crowd thinned out, just to be on the safe side. Not thinking that anything was going to happen, the students in the Hillel lounge went about there typical business, sitting around and doing school work. Ten minutes passed, and before anyone realized what was happening, the mob that was outside the press conference on the third floor was outside the Hillel office on the fourth floor. The students outside of the Hillel were shouting louder their anti-Israel slogans and banging on the floor and walls so hard that the lights outside the Hillel were flickering. As the students in Hillel began to grow uneasy and the feeling of being safe was diminishing, York security was called in to try and help break up the crowd but as any student who has been to York knows, the campus security is severely limited on the force that they can use and they were unable to break up the crowd. And, as a result we were encouraged by Hillel staff to call the Toronto Police to help disperse the crowd. Some students who had the local non-emergency number called that one but as panic was setting in with other students some called 911 as they were truly scared for their safety.

Just as Toronto Police were arriving on campus, one pro-Palestinian student stood at the glass door of the Hillel, visible to the students in the Hillel, with his Kaffeiyah scarf pulled all the way up to his eyes. This is a tactic used by terrorist organizations such as Hamas and al-Qaeda to intimidate others, and quite frankly I was completely taken off-guard by the sight of this student and at that point fear began to trickle into me as well. This is something that goes beyond free speech and being anti-Israel and is tantamount to racism and discrimination. As the police arrived they stated that in a situation like this there is nothing they can do as they did not feel that there was an actual threat of violence, however, it was their belief that the possibility remained. They then told us that because they could not stand watch at the door all night, that it was highly recommended that we vacate the lounge immediately and they would assist us with safe passage through the crowd so as to prevent anything from occurring. And as 20 Jewish student walked single file through this unruly mob, they were pointing, laughing and chanting that we were "Racists on Campus!"

The interesting thing is this, while all of this occurred, primarily because of the press conference, there was media present watching all of this. Of the three members of the press present one was the Excalibur, the largest campus newspaper, whose editorial board tends to be considered slightly pro-Palestinian, a smaller college affiliated paper was there and The Globe and Mail was there, which is a Canadian national newspaper. All three especially the national newspaper but more interestingly, the campus newspaper showed their complete disgust with what happened outside both the press conference and the Hillel.

I reprinted most of this account, lengthy as it is, because it contains all of the elements that have been taken up in other accounts. The three-month strike at York caused a lot of resentment. The York Federation of Students (the student council) allegedly endorsed the strike--it says it didn't, mind you, referring us to this statement in November (see end of third paragraph)--and a student movement to impeach the lot of them gained some traction on campus.

The YFS also passed a resolution condemning Israel for the recent carnage in Gaza. The two issues became inextricably entangled.

A British blogger.

The press conference was cancelled. “It was way too loud and it was disturbing,” he said. Members of the “Drop YFS” coalition moved upstairs to the Jewish Student Center and were followed by a crowd of chanting protesters. One pro-Israel student described “pro-Palestinian thugs gathered outside the Hillel office, some covering their faces with keffiyahs, chanting hateful statements and using intimidation” in a description posted on Facebook. Matthew Harris [vice-president of the Jewish student club on campus --DD] described Jewish students “barricaded” inside the room.

Campus security and Toronto Police were called and students were escorted safely out of the building. Harris alleges that the York Federation of Students hopes to obfuscate the reasons behind the petition calling for the recall of the executive by connecting it to the issue of Israel and Palestine. He asserts the Federation tried to paint those circulating the petition as pro-Israel lobbyists trying to usurp control from a pro-Palestinian council. “[The student government] tried to convince students that it wasn’t about undergraduate representation, but rather that it was about the Gaza issue,” Harris said. But “it had much more to do with the YFS’s support for CUPE during the strike,” Harris said.


At a rally in solidarity with Palestinians on Thursday, a member of the York Federation of Students refuted Harris’s account. “Ever since these individuals involved in the Drop YFS coalition started their campaign there has been an increase in racism and many other forms of discrimination on our campus,” said Krisna Saravanamuttu, the YFS vice president for equity. Saravanamuttu described the gathering that disrupted the press conference Wednesday night as a protest against “racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and sexism that we’ve seen on our campus in the last two weeks.” The protesting students simply wanted to be a part of the pres conference, Saravanamuttu said. “They just wanted to have their voices heard,” he said.

“There was no anti-Semitism involved with yesterday’s protest. It was a peaceful demonstration,” he said, adding that no one blocked access in or out of the Jewish student center. Saravanamuttu said that most people believe that the Drop YFS campaign is a response by pro-Israel student groups to a YFS resolution denouncing the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza.

Dawg's Blawg commenter "forgottobuytinfoil."

OK, this just pisses me off. On January 22, the York Federation of Students affiliated itself with the Right To Education campaign to condemn Israeli attacks on Palestinian educational institutions. By the 26th of January a Drop YFS campaign is forming, ostensibly to protest their support for the strike, but building around anger over their support for Gaza. By sometime last week, people are yelling at the YFS president; once girl calls out, "I fucking hate you!" This is indavertently documented in an over-cooked propaganda video. Yesterday, members of the Drop YFS campaign announce their completed petition to depose the YFS leadership, but get yelled at themselves and take shelter at the Hillel centre, complaining of anti-Semitism. Why does this piss me off? Because I dislike mendacity.

The student newspaper.

“The students united will never be defeated!” No truer words have ever been spoken or chanted from the top of someone’s lungs –seriously or in a half-mocking way. While the slogan itself is one of several political catchphrases used by the current York Federation of Students (YFS) executive, there may be something more to it than merely pumping students up for the next big cause – and trust me, there are many. Democracy, racism, accountability, pro-Palestine, impeachment, pro-Israel, politics, anti-Semitism, conflict, Zionism – a few words that have been tossed around lately, but why? And does anyone know the true motives of Drop YFS or the current – slash “outgoing” – YFS executive? Does anyone care? With cries of racism from both sides, rallies in Vari Hall (disrupting students’ last chance to learn anything lately) and smear campaigns, which side do you trust? Or, even more to the point, which side should you trust? I would be so bold as to suggest neither.

The truth is that these buzz words have been tossed around because of political opportunism on both sides. And, yet again, students are playing pawn to two faces of the same coin. Let’s not beat around the bush. Drop YFS is largely supported by members of Hillel at York as well as the Hasbara Fellowship at York – two Jewish student groups that are part of larger parent organizations in the Greater Toronto Area. In the YFS corner of the ring are the “progressive” voices on campus (often referred to as “the progressive allies”). The York University Black Students’ Alliance (YUBSA), Trans Bisexual Lesbian Gays Allies at York (TBLGAY) and Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) are amongst these voices. Enter good old-fashioned political opportunism.

With such obvious political polarity in the political interests of both sides’ supporters – that is, Hillel and Hasbara versus SAIA – it was only a matter of time before someone cast the first stone. It matters little who struck first. What matters is that something that began as students exercising their democratic right to recall the student government – for engaging in activities that that did not match the interest of some members of the student body – has degenerated into Middle Eastern politics. Like it or not, what students are left with is a choice between a YFS that allegedly supports Palestine through its actions and affiliations and a student group (Drop YFS) that has aligned itself with students who support Israel.

Richard L. Cravatts (author of
Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel).

More troubling is the invidious language used in this event, mirroring a surge of unbridled Jew-hatred manifested on campuses, as well as on city streets, worldwide since Israel’s recent defensive incursions into Gaza. Parroting the morally incoherent and factually defective exhortations of Israel-haters elsewhere of "Zionism equals racism!" and "Racists off campus!," the York mob, members of both the York Federation of Students and Students Against Israeli Apartheid, demonstrated once again that what is positioned as “intellectual debate” on campuses about the Israeli/Palestinian issue has devolved into something that is not really a conversation at all; rather, it is something more akin to an ideologically-driven shout fest in which a new version of pro-Palestinian brownshirts, employing a revisionist history in which the dark-skinned, third-world Arabs are the long-standing victims of white, European, colonial Zionists, have escalated the debate far beyond discussion of borders, refugee status, and the rights of both Jews and Arabs to self-determination, statehood, and peaceful coexistence.

So now, supporters of the cult of Palestinianism apparently no longer feel even a bit uncomfortable voicing what is actually on their minds when the subject of Israel comes up: when the York Hillel students were trapped inside of locked offices, surrounded by an increasingly violent and aggressive mob, the intellectual “debate” that day included such invidious and raw slurs as "Die bitch—go back to Israel" and "Die Jew—get the hell off campus." The most vicious anti-Semites have of late been able to conveniently inoculate themselves from what had become socially unacceptable in the modern age— hating Jews—by artfully masking any anti-Semitism on their part by stating, “Oh, no, it’s not Jews that I loathe, only the oppressive, genocidal, and racist policies of Zionism and Israel.”

The inflammatory slogans cited above have been reproduced all over the Internet, but I have been unable to track down when--or by whom--they were supposedly uttered. Maybe, as Gurney might say, it's not important if they were or weren't.

Visual Account.

[This has, oddly enough, been removed by YouTube for allegedly breaching its Terms of Service. Bizarre--it was just an account. --Ed., November 9, 2010]

Laura Rosen Cohen.

Last week, word broke that Jewish students were verbally accosted by anti-Israel protesters at York University. An eyewitness account of the melee, published here, described a hostage-like situation, where in Orwellian fashion, the Jewish victims of the campus intimidation were punished and asked by security to stop their event -- ostensibly for their own safety.


This is not a Jewish issue – it is a Canadian one. Do we want our university and college campuses to continue on their unfettered deterioration into hopeless cesspools of intimidation where Jews need to wear special T-shirts declaring they are not afraid to be present, or to exist?

Will the Jewish community leadership, in conjunction with our secular, elected government officials finally say enough is enough? Will they finally take a cold hard look at the clearest examples of Judenhass in recent Canadian history and do something about it, or will we be doomed to watch our leaders continue to pursue the ostrich route, continually allocating precious community resources in pursuit of ‘hateful words’ instead of taking on the hateful souls and ideologies that would happily destroy us? Time will tell.


I feel that I must apologize for the length of this piece, but, for what I hope are obvious reasons, it simply couldn't be helped. There are, of course, many more accounts to be had, and I encourage readers to look some of them up.

As noted, I've been trying to address the construction of history. Out of all of this there will be some who might touchingly expect that an authoritative, "objective" account could at some point be written about the York University events of February 11.

My point is simple: no such account is possible.

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