Hillel, York, And The Lady From Wichita, Kansas

The word “Hillel” caught my attention as I was leaving the Exhibition Hall at the Jerusalem GA conference. I couldn’t help myself. I had to say something to the representative sitting there.

She was youngish with curly blonde hair and glasses. “I want to register my disgust at the way Hillel looked the other way on the issue of the anti-Israel mural hanging on the wall at the York University student center,” I said.

(screenshot, mural at York University)

(screenshot, mural at York University)

“I don’t know anything about that. I live here,” she said, meaning Israel.

“This has been in the news and it’s about Hillel. If you represent this organization, how can you not know about this huge news item?”

“Sorry. I just don’t know anything about it,” she shrugged, dismissing me.

Not wanting to give up just yet, I told her, “It’s on Israel National News.”

But she was clearly uninterested in carrying on any further discussion with me on a subject she knew nothing about.

To sum up, the mural at the York U. student center depicts a young man holding rocks behind his back in hopes that a Jewish car will drive by. If all goes according to plan, the driver and occupants of the car can be pelted with rocks and killed. This “sport” (or “hobby” as Jodi Rudoren of the NY Times calls it) is specific to Arabs who live in Israeli territory and represents one more form of the larger recreational activity known as “freedom fighting,” A/K/A “kill the Jews.”

Screenshot of rock-throwing victims, Asher and Yonatan Palmer

Screenshot of rock-throwing victims, Asher and Yonatan Palmer

Other details of the York University mural include the map painted on the male figure’s scarf. The map depicts as one entity (helpfully painted a single color) all sovereign Israeli territory plus Gaza, Judea, and Samaria. The pièce de résistance is the two words that appear at the bottom of the mural in several languages, “Justice” and “Peace.”

In case you flunked Literary Art Criticism 101, the overall message imparted by the artist is that all Israeli and Jewish territory is Palestine and that killing Jews is the way for “Palestinians” to get justice and is therefore a legitimate method for staking land claims.

Director of York University’s Hillel, Tamara Caplan, when interviewed by Shalom Toronto about this issue said her organization would do nothing about the mural.  “We find it distasteful that a piece of art claiming to promote peace and justice depicts someone preparing to throw stones,” said Caplan. “However, since the message is vague for the vast majority of students, we believe that it will have little impact on student opinion.”

Reading this, one wonders of which students Caplan speaks: the pro-Israel students, the anti-Israel students, or those students who as yet, have formed no opinion on the subject of Israel?

If you’re a Jew at York U, you have to walk past that painting every single day. The alternative is to avoid the student center and forgo any semblance of a social life while at college. If you’re pro-Israel and well-versed in Jewish history, the painting is repugnant to you in its insistent false narrative that Jewish genocide brings justice.

If you’re an anti-Israel student, on the other hand, every time you see the painting, it reinforces for you the idea that Israel’s existence is illegitimate. It reinforces for you the abhorrent idea that killing Jews is just. It might even awaken some latent activism in your soul à la Dzokhar Tsarnaev and cause you to contemplate the unthinkable.

Screenshot of rock-throwing victim Adele Biton.

Screenshot of rock-throwing victim Adele Biton.

And what if you are a student who is naïve or undecided about Middle East politics? The message of this mural will wend its way past your presumably Judeo-Christian upbringing and rend your moral fiber. The brain is, after all, plastic. It’s just a basic function of neurocognition. If you see something every day it will imprint on your brain.

Which, of course, is the purpose of the mural and its presence in this location. Students away from home and parental influence for the first time are impressionable. Hillel is all there is in terms of providing a counterpoint to this false political narrative that calls for killing Jews. Hillel should bolster students with the unequivocal facts of Jewish and Israeli history: the rights of the Jews to a Jewish State. Hillel and certainly the university itself should be loudly denouncing the message of this painting which is incitement to genocide and both should insist on the removal of this mural from the hallowed halls of York.

The next day, while eating my complimentary GA box lunch, a woman sat down and introduced herself to me as a Jewish Federation representative from Wichita, Kansas. I told her I work from my virtual home office in Israel for an American nonprofit, Kars4Kids, and she told me her son’s roommate and best friend is a “Palestinian” but she knows her son is on the right track with his Judaism because his fave place to hang out is his university Hillel. Her daughter, also in college, is active at her own campus Hillel. Ms. Wichita beamed with pride.

I told Ms. Wichita about the York University Hillel and its refusal to speak out against the mural in the student center. She told me she’d never heard of York University, intimating  it must be an insignificant institution. She would know because her husband attended the University of Toronto.

This was her rejoinder then, to the curious lack of response by the York campus Hillel to an artwork constituting incitement to the genocide of her people. She didn’t question the veracity of the news item as I told it over to her, only whether the university was an important or sizeable one.

Screenshot, Asher Palmer's grieving widow.

Screenshot, Asher Palmer’s grieving widow.

To her mind, as long as it’s some dinky, fly-by-night school, what difference does it make that Jewish and other (impressionable) students are forced to walk past propaganda masquerading as art—propaganda that incites Arabs to murder Jews? What difference does it make if Hillel makes itself small and insignificant in the face of this evil, since York’s not an important campus like say, Columbia?

I don’t understand why size matters when it comes to Hillel serving as a Jewish presence and bulwark for Jewish students on campus. If the organization exists, it should be serving its student population. The fact that Hillel fails in its mission at York University, the third largest university in Canada, suggests Jewish students at this institution are in grave danger.

Ms. Jewish Federation of Wichita is certain her kids are on track with their Jewish identities because they gravitate toward Hillel in their spare time. In reality, she should be frightened on numerous levels: frightened that her children have no protection against anti-Semitism and incitement, frightened that her children could lose their connection to their homeland, and frightened that they might sever their ties to their people forever, should the false narrative of that mural spread and infect them.

Instead, I imagine her fearless, folding her clothes, packing, and thinking over our conversation. I imagine her taking comfort in the fact that I am just some fanatic far-right-wing fear-monger, the Pew report (and small insignificant academic institutions) be damned.

Her kids, she knows, are safe.


Varda Epstein

A third-generation-born Pittsburgher on her mother’s mother’s side, Varda moved to Israel 36 years ago and is a crazy political animal who spams people with right wing political articles on Facebook in between raising her 12 children and writing about education as the communications writer at Kars for Kids a Guidestar gold medal charity.

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