Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Josee Chiasson, a York University student in Toronto completing an Honours Bachelor’s Degree in psychology. She wrote her undergraduate thesis about the influence of media bias on group attitudes towards Israelis. She is a recipient of the 2010 Israel Experience College Scholarship. In her capacity as immediate past President of Christians United for Israel at York University, she fought for Israel by trying to change the name of Israel ‘Apartheid’ Week to Middle-East Peace week and by educating and mobilizing other students in support for Israel on campus. Josee has spoken on student panels as well: she has appeared on MENCHlife and has written an article for the Prince Arthur Herald addressing the politics at York and the administration’s responsibilities.
FP: Josee Chiasson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Before we get into all your courageous efforts on behalf of Israel, first give us a bit of background about yourself. How did you come to being so passionate about the issues you are involved in?
Chiasson: In my first year of University, I witnessed two large groups of students separated by campus security shouting at each other waving Palestnian and Israeli flags with signs that read “Free Palestine”, and “Zionism is Racism.” I thought this was a display of international students bringing the politics from their home countries to campus. My conclusion was that this had nothing to do with me. However, in January 2010, I became friends with Jewish and pro-Israel Christian students at York who taught me about why supporting Israel is important and also told me about the Israel Experience College Scholarship. I got the scholarship and spent three weeks in Israel where I attended lectures from politicians, Rabbis and intelligence experts. I visited parts of the West Bank and met Israelis and Arabs at all levels of society. I came back with first hand experience, a deep knowledge base and a deep spiritual conviction that it is my responsibility to be a voice against anti-Semitism in this generation.
FP: So tell us about the campus politics at York University. I’m wondering how things may have changed since I went to York in the 1990s – as I am well aware of the leftist and anti-Semitic climate there.
Chiasson: The democratically elected student government/union, the York Federation of Students (YFS), has been a divisive force on campus. The YFS used student fees to bring a Hamas supporter, George Galloway, to speak on campus while refusing to sponsor speakers of different opinions to which students responded in a protest.
In 2009, the YFS stringently condemned the state of Israel on behalf of ‘all York students’. In response, a facebook group was created to protest this declaration. Furthermore, in 2009, York students collected 5000 signatures necessary to impeach the executive of the YFS. This resulted in a group of pro-YFS protesters (which included members of the YFS and students) trying to intrude on the press conference. Feeling unsafe, the students retreated to the Hillel office at York. The protesters followed them and blocked them into the office while shouting things like ‘f*ing Jews’ and calling the president of Hillel a ‘dirty Jew’.
York University has a large and diverse Middle-Eastern population which has fostered a distinctively charged atmosphere. For instance, when Hasbara Fellowships at York showed the movie Iranium they received bomb threats and Iranian students protested outside the event. Also, there was a dispute when the Middle-East Student Association refused to hang the Israeli flag and recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
FP: How does Israel Apartheid Week manifest itself there?
Chiasson: The dynamics have changed drastically during Israel ‘Apartheid’ Week (IAW). IAW typically led to rallies in which pro-Israel and anti-Israel students were separated by campus security, yelling at one another and waiving Israeli and Palestinian flags and signs. Any hate speech or other offenses committed during these rallies were difficult to prove because of the intensity of the moment and the lack of police presence. There was also outrage because certain groups were expected to pay exorbitant security fees to host certain pro-Israel speakers. The York administration was criticized by students and community members for their ‘laissez-faire’ attitude.
In the past two years, I have been involved in bringing about a change in the atmosphere during IAW and have seen the administration’s approach improve significantly. This year during IAW four pro-Israel groups set up displays throughout the week, protected by the campus security and police while anti-Israel displays were only seen for 2 hours during the entire week. Furthermore, the anti-Israel group only made a minor contribution to the main article covering IAW in the York student newspaper. The anti-Israel groups were also forced to pay for their security needs, (thus treated with the same standard as the pro-Israel groups) which lead to them canceling the only IAW event planned at York. Essentially the pro-Israel voice was the loudest and the strongest and the atmosphere on campus was one that fostered respectful dialogue instead of divisive rallies.
FP: What advice would you give to students who would like to stand up against intimidation of Jewish students and anti-Semitism during Israel Apartheid Week and beyond?
Chiasson: Students must be committed to respecting others and being solution-oriented. Students can lobby the administrations of their university to implement the code of conduct, to increase security presence on campus during events like IAW, to hold accountability meetings between the administration and the student leaders involved in Middle-East politics. Actively and consistently reporting discrimination or anti-Semitism to campus authorities is also important because complaints are recorded and reviewed by the University. Students should also pay attention to anti-Israel groups and seize opportunities to expose their rhetoric by involving student newspapers or other media sources as much as possible (like in the flag dispute situation mentioned earlier). Students should also be intentional about establishing open communication and partnering with key members of the administration throughout the year.
Students should to establish unity within pro-Israel groups by focusing on common goals. These groups can pool resources and support each other’s events. This applies especially to pro-Israel Christian and Jewish groups who can be great sources of support for one another.
When dealing with students, listening before responding is the key. I have spoken with Radical Muslims, anti-Israel Palestinian Christians, Humanitarians and many other people with opposing viewpoints and have found that the more I am willing to listen and to respectfully disagree, without getting emotional or too passionate, the more people are willing to hear what I have to say. Furthermore, establishing friendship with people of opposing points of view and who hold prejudice is a great way to break down the stereotypes and misconceptions which divide us.
FP: Expand for us a bit on your own efforts and the changes you have helped put into place.
Chiasson: I have been heavily involved in lobbying the administration of York University to change the name of Israel ‘Apartheid’ Week (IAW) to something like ‘Middle-East Peace Week’. I wrote a letter to the administration and included statements from a diverse group of students including Jewish, Christian, South African and emotionally unattached students. I also found a professor who was willing to lobby the administration from a faculty member’s perspective. While the administration did not see itself forcing the group Students Against Israeli Apartheid to change the name of IAW, the idea was planted and the topic is still on the table for discussion.
As president of Christians United For Israel, I successfully built a relationship with the presidents of Jewish groups at York like Hasbara, B’nai Brith and Hillel by meeting with them, building friendship, supporting each other’s events and standing by them in rallies and during IAW. I also partnered with other Christian groups and together we held several Israel-focused events like a Day to Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. I also brought Jews and Christians together in coordinating an educational series to teach students about Israel from various perspectives. As the number of pro-Israel Christians began to grow, we established a weekly prayer meeting focused just on Israel.
FP: Josee Chiasson, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview. And thank you for your valiant fight for Israel, freedom and the truth.