While student groups at Ryerson are reacting to this summer’s war in Gaza through efforts to expand their membership and inform the student body of their positions, they are still managing to coexist peacefully on campus.
Jewish and Arab student groups are seeking support for their respective causes, even though this may create tension on campus.
These groups promote their culture and national interests by recruiting new members and organizing various social and educational events.
This summer, the Israeli Student Association decided to join Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a North American pro-Israel student movement, in a move to broaden its base and garner new support for Israel.
Right now there are SSI groups at 14 U.S. universities.
SSI was present during the Ryerson Campus Groups Fair last week, recruiting members and talking to students about issues in the Middle East.
Hadas Hait, the president of SSI at Ryerson, said in an email that the Israeli Students Association decided to change its name and become the first Canadian chapter of SSI in the middle of August.
“The name change was done in order to make the group more inclusive for those who support Israel and may not be Israeli,” Hait says.
SSI is an international movement that was founded in Minnesota in 2012. According to Hait, the group’s activities include organizing events and bringing guests to speak to students so they can “learn the truth about Israel.”
According to its Facebook page, SSI is “committed to provide students with the opportunity to support the position of Israel in the Middle East, discuss fair media coverage of the area, and familiarize students with current events and Israeli culture.”
Hait says the group hopes to collaborate with Hillel — a Jewish cultural organization active on campuses across North America and Israel — and any other student group that shares its opinion of Israel.
Pro-Palestinian groups are also active on campus.
With Ryerson’s diverse student population, conflicts are bound to bubble up among student groups, but the university expects all groups to respect each other.
“There tends to be a bit of friction between those who support the Palestinian cause and those who don’t,” said Abdelrahman El-Maghraby, an executive in the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
“The collaborations that we’ve had are usually with student groups outside of Ryerson that do support our cause.”
According to El-Maghraby, SJP has collaborated with Jewish groups outside of Ryerson in the past.
Osama Sbeitan, a Jordanian-born Palestinian, is the director of foreign affairs for the Middle Eastern Students’ Association (MESA).
He says MESA supports Palestinians and is critical of the Israeli government, but MESA is open to working with student groups that hold opposing views.
“The Jews, they were our neighbours. We are cousins actually. So with the Hillel group, with the Jewish group, we actually talked to collaborate and do events together,” Sbeitan said.
Ruchie Shainhouse, the president of Hillel at Ryerson, confirmed this information at Hillel’s weekly bagel lunch.
Sbeitan says he is not against the Jewish people, but the Israeli government’s policies.
“It’s the Israeli government, the people who are actually responsible for taking action against the Palestinian people … We are not against the Jewish people whatsoever. I promote peace all the way.”
He says most members of MESA share his views.
Melissa Michaels, a member of Hillel and SSI, says Hillel promotes peace and expects the same from its members.
“We don’t really want to fight with people. We are all about creating peace and working together,” she said.
“We do want (Ryerson) to be a very peaceful spot, and so Hillel makes it clear to the Jewish students that this is what our focus is and we will do whatever we can to make you comfortable and make you feel that yes, campus is a safe place.”
Ryerson president Sheldon Levy says the university is a place for free speech. He says Ryerson promotes dialogue and strives to create an atmosphere where all student groups feel safe.
“Even in a situation where there are strong opposite views, that are passionately felt, we believe that there should be the opportunity for each side to hear each side and to have an open dialogue,” he said.
El-Maghraby says Ryerson has been successful at ensuring that student groups coexist and work together, “even if there is a political background to the cause.”
But if there’s one thing that all these groups agree on, it’s that they want a peaceful campus.
“Look, we’re all one people, somewhere down the line we come from the same ancestors,” Michaels said.
“There’s no reason why we can’t live in peace and do everything together as a family.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 10, 2014.