Second-year University of Manitoba law student Josh Morry has found himself fighting a battle he thought he already won.
Last year, Morry took on Students Against Israeli Apartheid, a group that annually stages “Israel Apartheid Week,” a week-long event held at universities around the world for the past 10 years. The week is intended to raise awareness about Israeli apartheid, according to the SAIA.
Morry views the week differently.
“To call Israel and its supporters ‘racist’ on university campuses is limited by the policies and bylaws of student unions whose goal it is to protect students from harassment, discrimination, and behaviour that is likely to undermine their dignity and self-esteem,” says Morry. “These are the same rules that protect other vulnerable groups, like LGBTs, disabled students, women, and aboriginal students.”
The former member of the University of Manitoba Student Union presented the union with a petition last year, signed by more than 60 students who said they felt the SAIA undermined their dignity and self-esteem by labeling them as racist.
“The truth is . . . these students, and many like them, feel scared — and not just during Israel Apartheid Week,” he says. “Are supporters of Israel, who are mainly but by no means exclusively Jews on campus, entitled to the same protections as other vulnerable groups?”
Morry wanted the group banned from campus, which left student union councillors facing a moral dilemma, as well as legal one, he says.
A UMSU policy prohibits behaviour that is “likely” to undermine the dignity or self-esteem of any student, Morry explains. After considering the matter, the majority of the council believed the SAIA met that threshold. As a result, the student union withdrew all funding from the group and refused to allow it space at the university to pursue its activities.
This year, an off-campus group, the Winnipeg Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, appealed directly to University of Manitoba president David Barnard for permission to rent space at the university for their 10th annual Israel Apartheid Week event.
To Morry’s surprise, Barnard gave his approval.
In a letter sent to Barnard in mid-March, Morry and nearly 40 other students protested the president’s decision: “As Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Jewish Students Association at the U of M and U of W, we are very concerned and disappointed with the university’s decision. UMSU, a student union of our elected representatives, made a determination last year that Students Against Israel Apartheid and IAW undermine our dignity and self-esteem.”
As students “paying to attend university,” they said it was “shocking to us that the University of Manitoba is prepared to disregard its own policies and jump through hoops to allow an off-campus advocacy group to poison the atmosphere of the university at the expense of its students.”
The letter went on to say an off-campus group should not be allowed to come on campus and undermine the “dignity and self-esteem of students at the University of Manitoba.”
In a written response, Barnard said “universities have long been places where ideas are questioned and debate is fostered, and this is a process that brings with it the potential to create understanding of others’ perspectives, and identify solutions to important issues.
“Not only does the university desire to be such a centre for debate, the legal framework under which we operate requires it. The university regularly licenses space to individuals and organizations which are not part of our immediate community. The Human Rights Code obligates us (the university) not to discriminate against groups based upon their political beliefs. We simply attempt to ensure that those beliefs are expressed in a respectful way that furthers our mission to facilitate informed debate.”
Morry sees otherwise, noting that, while the Winnipeg Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid was initially given space on the fifth floor of the student union building, the group was eventually allowed to have a booth on the main floor where it had much greater visibility.
Morry says he is now considering registering a human rights complaint against the president, among other possibilities.
“I am considering what would be the best mechanism to persuade Dr. Barnard to enforce the university’s rules,” says Morry.
He will also be taking steps to create an organization that fosters positive relationships between students of Jewish and Arab origins.
“I made a promise to the UMSU student council last year — after the Israel Apartheid vote — to form an Arab-Jewish dialogue group on campus,” he says, adding the group could possibly be the first of its kind in North America.
“We received official status in the fall,” Morry says. “[We] have written a constitution and are approaching other Jewish and Arab students we think may be interested in joining us.”
Morry and another student of Lebanese descent have been holding regular meetings to flesh out the university Arab-Jewish Dialogue program.
“We have differing opinions, but respect the process of dialogue,” he says. “We hope to have our first public program later this semester or possibly in September.”