I’d like to share an experience I had in my first year at university in a film course, for which, despite excellent preparation at TanenbaumCHAT about how to counter BDS and other forms of anti-Zionism, I was totally unequipped. It was during the second semester of a course called “Film, Culture, and Communication” that I experienced Israel-bashing. However, the attacks came not from Palestinian students but from my professor and the teaching assistant.
The two-semester course is designed as a “blended learning” class, which means it is partly online, partly lecture, and part seminar. When the winter semester came and the professors switched, the new professor was Israeli and Jewish. Suddenly the direction of the course took a turn.
We watched the movie Avatar. The online lectures mostly covered the environmentalist message of Avatar, about saving our planet. And then our professor began to talk about colonialism. She went over the history of colonialism, gave some examples, and then she proceeded to explain that colonialism is still happening presently today – in Israel.
I remember listening to the online lecture multiple times. My Jewish roommate and I discussed her comments, I messaged my Jewish peers that were also in the class about it… we were all talking about it. What do we do? Should we email her? We all quietly just sort of decided that it was just a few comments, wasn’t the focus of the lecture, so we would just leave it.
Unfortunately, the majority of the rest of the semester was dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Remember this isn’t a politics or history course — this is a film course. During the online lectures is where I began to feel uncomfortable about the narrative that was being presented about Israel. It was not the explicit bashing of Israel I was prepared for and had been prepared for by my high school teachers. There was an implicit blame placed on Israel throughout the entire online lecture. The small ad-libs throughout her explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were what bothered me.
The final week of the course came, and we were going to watch and discuss in our tutorial section Inglorious Basterds. The film is a fictional alternate history of a team of Jewish-American soldiers hunting Nazis. The relevant part of the plot is this: Shoshanna, a young Jewish woman whose entire family was killed in front of her eyes at the beginning of the film, successfully executes a suicide bombing in a theatre that kills Hitler and Goebbels. In our tutorial, we were discussing whether or not we thought what she did was wrong. Almost everyone in the class said they didn’t think so and that they agreed with Shoshanna’s actions.
The teaching assistant proceeded to ask then that if this suicide bombing was okay, can’t we see the justification for the suicide bombings that took place in Israel? They, too, were just getting revenge and speaking out the only way they knew how.
I reached my breaking point. In the tutorial I had quite the emotional response, immediately crying out that it was a ridiculous and quite frankly disrespectful comparison to equate the fictional suicide bombing intended to kill the man responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews, and the real life suicide bombings of extremists terrorists in Israel against innocent people. The moment I got home I emailed my Hillel director that I was furious and wanted to launch a complaint about everything — all of the online, the tutorial questions, the films we were watching – all of it. Unfortunately, the Hillel director explained to me that they have a problem with this professor almost every year and despite their complaints, nothing with her has ever changed. In the midst of final exams, as this was the last week of school, and the discouraging fact that nothing ever changed despite the complaints made in the past, nothing I did went very far. My fellow pro-Israel students and I wrote her a terrible professor evaluation and nothing came of it. The Hillel director wrote a letter and nothing came of it.
The thing I was most frustrated about was that the platform with which my professor used to present her sentiments about Israel was a one-sided form of communication. The online lectures, the only place where she would discuss Israel, are not open for discussion. There was no forum in which I could respond or even react to the things she was saying — not even a comment board. It was just a video with her voice recording. I felt like I didn’t have a voice, and even when I tried to use my voice I was not being heard.
Had this been in second year or even during this school year, my course of action would have been completely different. After getting more comfortable at my university, I learned there is an Academic Grievance centre that I can go to specifically for situations like this, and maybe being an upper year student would have given me the confidence to go to her office hours and discuss my problems with the course. These are all things I wish I’d known in first year. However, this experience drove me to take a more active role in Israel advocacy on campus. Today, I am the co-President of Queen’s Israel on Campus, running events throughout the school year open to all Queen’s students to ensure that there is a dialogue about Israel on campus.
Overall this was a very formative experience for me. I think what I wasn’t prepared for was the implicit criticism of Israel. I wasn’t sure if I was being “too sensitive” because I was really looking out for the really negative accusations that are hurled at Israel that I was told to expect. However, the way Israel was framed in that course was wrong — and this is a far more common experience on campus than being yelled at by an anti-Zionist in the student centre. We need to prepare students for the more subtle and implicit, but still just as dangerous, narratives about Israel just as much as I was prepared for Israel Apartheid Week.