Interview: Canadian social work student confronts antisemitism in her program
I didn’t want to be in an environment with people that hate me. I think no other student needs to deal with that. Why do I? I hated every day, I hated everything I was studying.
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I must admit, as a former family therapist who trained in Canada in the 1980s, I was shocked to learn that a social work program could be antisemitic. After all, social workers are trained to work with all who seek their help. The need for cultural awareness and sensitivity was instilled in us throughout our studies. Specific cultural groups or minorities were not singled out for special attention with the understanding that even within a given cultural group, each family has its own “culture.” How can it be, then, that social workers today are being taught in an environment of antisemitism?
Rebecca Katzman began her university studies at the age of 18 with the goal of becoming a clinical social worker. Experiences with antisemitism waylaid those plans and today, at the age of 28, she works with StandWithUs Canada and helps students cope with the injustices and sometimes outright hatred some of them face in Canadian institutions of higher learning.
Katzman took time out during a particularly busy week to talk with me via Zoom from Toronto. We discussed her personal experiences with antisemitism after leaving the Jewish bubble (her words) in which she grew up and about the kinds of problems she has helped other students resolve.
Some universities have long had a reputation for being antisemitic. Did that play any part in where you applied?
I decided against going to one university when my high school teachers advised me against it because it was very antisemitic.
So you decided to attend Ryerson, a university that did not have a reputation for antisemitism . . .
Yes. So I thought.
You told me you grew up totally surrounded by Jews even though very few Jews lived in your neighborhood. You went to Jewish day school, to Jewish camps. You did not make friends with the kids who lived around you. So what was it like for you when you began university and you were no longer in a Jewish environment?
It fazed me to suddenly be surrounded by such a diverse student population given what I was used to. There was a big adjustment period for me going to university, even just taking the subway into the city was new to me. For the first time in my life, I felt different from those around me. There were lots of cultural differences besides being Jewish. I was open to meeting people who were different from me and I was curious about other people’s religions.
In class, we were not allowed to ask people where they are from. But everyone seemed to have a different background, which was very important for me to be exposed to, hearing other people’s narratives and hearing about their families’ cultures and traditions. I took a lot from that. Also, learning about indigenous culture was a big one because the social work program where I studied has a big focus on indigenous people and I didn’t learn a lot about that in high school.
What was the very first antisemitic experience you had at university?
It was in the second half of my first year, when students from my social work program joined together to submit a motion to the student union to boycott Israel.
Having grown up at Jewish Day School, that was the first time that I had directly experienced antisemitism. I wasn’t super involved with the Jewish community on campus to that point. I was a little bit naive then. Hillel found me on Facebook and they reached out to me and told me they needed my vote.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Jewish community; I just wanted to see what else was out there. I was and am a very proud Jew, but I also wanted to experience something that was not religious. Nonetheless, when Hillel messaged me, I said I would be there.
I went to the vote and I saw antisemitism at play. People were saying all these lies about Israel. Calling Israel a terrorist state, saying that they lock kids in cages, all of these outrageous claims. This really opened my eyes to the extent of the antisemitism that existed at the student union level; it hit me right in the face.
How did it affect you?
I was hurt, angry, feeling hopeless because I had no control over what was going on. I had just come there to vote ‘no’ so I felt there was not much I could do. I felt endangered for my safety because the people in the room were violent. They were verbally violent, threatening us, and they were also throwing things at us as we were walking out of the room.
How did this affect you in the next days or weeks?
Right after that, I wanted to spring into action and get involved. Obviously, it wasn’t my fault that it happened but I felt that if I could have done something, maybe I could have informed more students or made a difference. I felt guilty that I hadn’t gone back to my Jewish roots and gotten involved in Jewish activities on campus from the start. I thought maybe I could have done something to stop this if I had been involved.
Did your BDS experience change the direction you were going in?
I still intended to pursue something in social work but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I considered practicing social work within the Jewish community. I remained on the social work track until my 3rd or 4th year.
What kind of day-to-day experiences did you have with antisemitism?
There was a lot. [Laughs] It’s obviously not funny, I just laugh because it would be nearly impossible to start recounting all of the awful things I experienced and/or heard about from Jewish peers, despite the notion by many that antisemitism isn’t a major issue.
Then, the next big vote at the student union that was bad was about the definition of antisemitism. After that big blow-up with BDS, a Jewish student, on behalf of Hillel and Students Supporting Israel, put forward a motion to define antisemitism. And right before my eyes, I experienced – I cut class to go to this vote — and I saw right before my eyes that non-Jewish students were defining antisemitism. A lot of them were social work students in my program. And they were trying to say that Zionism isn’t part of antisemitism. They were telling us what antisemitism is and what it isn’t, which wouldn’t happen for any other community. In the end, everything having to do with Zionism and Israel was taken out of the context of antisemitism. They took the most important part out of the motion.
We said that it should be the Jews defining antisemitism, but they didn’t care. They just look at Jewish people as white and privileged, they look at us as colonizers. They don’t listen to what we have to say. They say you’re just another white person trying to oppress a minority.
What about on a day-to-day level
The antisemitism I experienced involved general systemic issues – the pro-Palestinianism within the student union and my program. The student government gave the pro-Palestinian groups more funding to run their programs and they would also run their own anti-Israel programming.
In my social work program, I heard anti-Israel sentiments as well. I was told I don’t experience oppression because, my professor said, most but not all Jews are white so my narrative doesn’t matter. She said that in front of the whole class.
We were talking about different kinds of oppression and, I’ll never forget this, she said antisemitism is something we never talk about. I was shocked. She’s mentioning antisemitism. This is great. For the first time ever in four years! The only result of this comment was that one student raised her hand to tell a story:
She said she has two moms who converted to Judaism (and I thought, oh no. I don’t like where this is going because she is going to tokenize her mother’s Judaism). She said that her mothers experienced so much antisemitism and she compared Islamophobia to antisemitism, but most Jews don’t really experience oppression, she said, because most, if not all, are white.
This was my fourth year and I was furious. I raised my hand and said, first of all, not all Jews are white. There are lots of Jews that come from different backgrounds – she rolled her eyes at this. Secondly, Jews don’t compare Islamophobia and antisemitism. They are two very different and very real things. And lastly, and here is where I got an apology from her, in 1930s Germany, when my family was getting murdered in the Holocaust, and my grandfather had to go into hiding, they were considered Jews and not white.
The professor asked me if I was going to storm out of class because whenever anything happened, somebody would storm out. I said no, and then she proceeded to explain to me that because I have white skin I don’t experience the same hatred as someone who is black.
So the student got it but your professor did not.
No, the professor didn’t understand. I get that if I am stopped by a police officer, my white skin means I will be treated differently, but we are talking about institutional oppression, and the people who experience that the most are the Jews, not any other community.
The other Jewish students were taken aback by the professor’s comments but were too scared to say anything. We felt alienated and some felt they just had to keep quiet.
What was the worst experience for you, personally?
The placement coordinator refused to allow me to do my mandatory placement in either of the two Jewish agencies I wanted to be at. She conditioned my placement there only if I would agree to promote a pro-Palestinian position.
I was devastated that I was denied this placement. I instantly turned to StandWithUs Canada and they had my back, they guided me in how to fight, but I decided to wait it out and make sure that my grades weren’t going to be affected, knowing that after I graduate, I would come forward.
When I came out publicly with my story about my placement, they put the placement coordinator on leave. The school should have helped me six months earlier, when I told them about the problem.
I applied to grad school but after the situation with the placement coordinator, and being isolated because I didn’t embrace the ideologies being taught, I didn’t really want to go. I didn’t want to be in an environment with people that hate me. It’s not that I’m not strong, I just think no other student needs to deal with that. Why do I? I resented being in the program. I hated every day, I hated everything I was studying.
What are some of the issues you have helped other students deal with since working with StandWithUs Canada? Do you feel you have had a positive impact?
[Very emphatically] Oh for sure! We’ve helped students in many different capacities, whether that is in difficult conversations with professors or by giving them grants so they can run pro-Israel programming on campus.
A student at one university came to me with a very biased syllabus from one of her middle east classes that talked about the Gaza riots. She asked what she could do about it. We sent her a Jerusalem Post article explaining another perspective on what happened for her to give to her professor and shortly after she met with him, he put the article into the syllabus. The professor kept in the old article but put ours in as well because he realized there should be a balance. That same professor was later open to having a conversation with an Arab Israeli StandWithUs delegate about his experiences in Israel.
StandWithUs has a program called Israel 101, giving information about Israel, from past to present. Because of the lack of understanding about Israel and antisemitism, a couple of non-Jewish students and one of the StandWithUs Canada fellows wanted to bring an Israel 101 to their student union. The whole union turned on them. I helped them write letters to faculty and gave them access to StandWithUs resources that proved that this was antisemitic until those who were against it backed down. We were then able to give the presentation in conjunction with the student union.
Toronto Metropolitan University published an ad outlining the importance of fighting various forms of bigotry and neglected to include antisemitism. StandWithUs Canada and other organizations emailed the administration. They agreed to make an event to talk about antisemitism on campus. It was a one-time event, but it’s a start.
In another instance, at a Ryerson student council meeting, a student proposed having a Holocaust Education Week. The students for Justice in Palestine, supported by the union, walked out so there could be no vote on the motion. This was a huge blow to the Jewish community but at the same time, it proved what we were already saying that all of this anti-Israel rhetoric was just antisemitism in disguise. Because of the connections we had on the student union, the union finally unanimously adopted the education week motion, which is still ongoing today, co-sponsored by the university administration.
What change do you see over 10 years from when you entered your first year at university?
The level of antisemitism is the same, it just manifests itself differently. Now it is on debunking the IHRA definition of antisemitism so they can separate Zionism from Judaism.
At the same time, I see more Jewish students running for positions in student government, and more programs are being conducted to contend with the pro-Palestinianism of the student unions.
This year hasn’t been the worst year we’ve ever had. But things are still happening, such as personal professor issues and five BDS motions in the last year.
Some Jewish students proudly wear an item that identifies them as Jewish while others don’t because they don’t want their professors to identify them, afraid that their grades will suffer if the professor knows they are Jewish.
There hasn’t been physical violence against students but it doesn’t mean they aren’t scared. I was with a student yesterday at a table sharing information about Israel and a large group of guys came up to our table. The student was nervous, worried that the group could become physically violent. So there is that fear. They are nervous that it could happen in Canada because it happens elsewhere.
This article was first published in Israel National News.
Where was the administration? Did other Jewish organizations help?
The administration did nothing regarding the student union because the student union is an independent body and unrelated to the admin. I think I indicated where the admin did respond to issues concerning instructors. In most cases, they did nothing, but there were a small number of instances in which they did.