McMaster Jewish students feeling targeted and unsafe

November 2023
Rachel Belmont

On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 7, McMaster Jewish students woke up looking forward to a relaxing and restful reading week. This anticipation was quickly replaced by pain, fear, and grief as we slowly learned of the horrific events transpiring in southern Israel. Young people, much like ourselves, who should have been enjoying a music festival, were being brutally murdered by Hamas. 

With hardly enough time to even comprehend the magnitude of these attacks, students were already seeing the tone-deaf responses online. On Saturday afternoon, the president of CUPE 3906, a union representing teaching assistants, research assistants, and graduate students at McMaster, reposted a video of the barbed wire fence being torn down and captioned it: “Palestine is rising. Long live the resistance.” 

Bear in mind—this was at a time when Jewish students were frantically calling their loved ones in Israel to ensure they were safe, with some left to anxiously wait until the end of Simchat Torah to reach people. The union removed this initial post and issued a statement responding to the backlash received. 

Nowhere in this statement was an apology of any sort. Even after representatives from Hillel McMaster reached out to express their concerns, the union defended its actions and again failed to apologize. The CUPE 3906 statement sent McMaster’s Jews a clear message, which has been reiterated time and time again in the past weeks: our grief does not count. 

The return to campus was met with uneasiness and uncertainty of what lay ahead. In the weeks since the attacks, Jewish students’ socials have been flooded with posts and direct messages from their fellow students which completely delegitimize their suffering. Hayley Kupinsky described how “disheartening” it has been to see her peers “posting misinformation on social media pertaining to the conflict, even going so far as to say that the terrorist attacks were exaggerated or the atrocities are being fabricated.” Students have felt extremely uncomfortable attending classes for fear of how this online behaviour will translate in person. 

As expected, comments made by professors and teaching assistants in class have fueled conversations which make Jews feel targeted and unwelcome. Atara Lipetz expressed her serious concerns regarding campus behaviour: “Students have made inappropriate Holocaust comparisons, spread denialism of the Oct. 7 massacre, and called for an Intifada,” referencing signs seen at the recent pro-Palestinian silent protest and vandalism scrawled in campus buildings. 

On the same day as the protest, posters of Israeli hostages that were hung up by a Jewish student were torn down. When this student tried hanging the posters  back up, he was confronted by crowds of students who smiled as they eagerly ripped them down again. 

This behaviour from fellow students is causing Jews on campus to feel outnumbered and unsafe. A recent vigil organized by a Jewish student had to be held at night, with its location unpublicized, due to security concerns. Despite campus security and Hamilton police being in attendance, McMaster students showed up to the vigil waving Palestinian flags and concealing their faces. Even under the cover of the night, we could not have a space to grieve and pray without being interrupted. 

Actions taken by the university, while well-meaning, have largely been insufficient. “I feel like they are more focused on saying pleasant words in arbitrary statements than taking action against rapidly rising antisemitic rhetoric,” said David Benbassat. “Just yesterday I saw people in the student centre plaza holding signs calling for violence against Jewish people. 

“It’s unacceptable that an institution that prides itself on diversity and inclusion can have such a weak-handed response to one of history’s most deadly forms of discrimination.”

McMaster’s Jewish students are taking action. “The strength of the McMaster Jewish community is inspiring,” says Kupinsky. “Being a part of Hillel and knowing the staff and other students are here to support me is a huge source of comfort.” Students and Hillel staff are working directly with various university-affiliated offices and organizations. “Fortunately, we are being supported by the security on campus,” says Lipetz. “The special constables regularly check up on the Hillel lounge.” 

While the University’s willingness to hear our concerns is much appreciated, time will tell whether the school takes concrete action to investigate antisemitic incidents.

Being a Jewish student on campus right now is challenging, but our voices deserve to be heard. We should not have to wait until after dark to be proudly Jewish. We should not have to choose between associating with Israel or keeping our friends. And we should definitely not have to stay silent.