Opinion: As a rabbi and ex-student activist, my advice to protesters

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Nearly 30 years ago, I was a vice-president of the Students’ Society of McGill University. It was an exciting and formative time. We advocated for anti-racism policies and responses to sexual assault on campus; we bribed our peers with doughnuts to talk about discrimination. I also remember being part of heated exchanges on Israel, and experiencing antisemitism where I least expected it.

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In some ways, what is happening now at McGill and Concordia, and at universities across North America, feels very familiar. But what I am hearing — from Jewish students, parents, professors and administrators — is on a different level. The ideal of the university as a place to learn and grow is being undermined. This makes me sad; it makes me angry; and, like the student activist that I once was, it makes me want to do something.

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Thirty years is a long time, and I don’t expect my involvement in the 1990s to give me credibility with today’s students. But for over 140 years, the synagogue I serve has been connected with progressive causes: Jewish-Christian dialogue, Syrian refugee sponsorship, Truth and Reconciliation, and opposing Bill 21 — to name just a few. We are also part of the progressive Zionist movement; we care deeply about pluralism, peace and human rights.

Before Oct. 7, we took to the streets to protest against reforms by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. After Oct. 7, we took to the streets to stand with Israel, and to bring the hostages home. I wake up every morning and check our family WhatsApp group to see if those we love in Israel are accounted for, and I go to sleep each night with the images of the children in captivity seared into my brain.

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If today’s students were to listen to me, what would I want to say? It comes down to two things.

First: Humility. Be passionate about the world’s problems, but know what you don’t know. Do you care about Middle East politics? Don’t just post a meme — take a class. When I started university, I had never picked up a Christian Bible; I ended up studying Christianity. I don’t share this because I’m proud of my ignorance. I share this because I’m proud I learned more.

Do you think you know what Zionism is? Ask someone who defines themselves as a Zionist. Don’t assume being pro-Israel means being anti-Palestinian, or being pro-Palestinian means being pro-Hamas. You are surrounded by people with different backgrounds; talk to them. I made my first Muslim friend at McGill — and before me, he had never met a Jew. Thirty years later, our friendship lets us learn from each other in a way we could never get from a book.

Also, the truth is, none of us here in Montreal know enough to make peace in the Middle East. But we can make peace in our schools and our streets. Being curious about others, learning to disagree respectfully, and having the humility to say “I don’t know” — all these skills will help you your whole life.

Second: Humanity. Especially when we are hurt, or scared, we go to our own corners. University can be where we find our people, and there is strength and beauty in that. But we become too particularistic at our peril. If my heart hurts when I see those images of Israeli children, how can I not understand mourning for children in Gaza? How can I not feel it too? We may have drastically different understandings of the situation, but we lose our own humanity when we close our eyes to others’ pain.

And if whatever you are holding a sign for doesn’t matter to you enough to cause you pain, or if it matters to you so much that you can’t see the pain of others? Maybe it’s time to put down the sign. Humility means keeping an open mind. Humanity means keeping an open heart. Learning these things is the work of a lifetime.

Lisa J. Grushcow is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount.

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