Confronting antisemitism and confidence in my Jewish identity
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
When I applied to McGill University, I was accepted into the Jewish Teacher Training Program, but I changed out barely a month before my first semester. I tell all sorts of reasons why I chose not to continue at the time, acceptable ones, not the complicated truth. Just as I registered for my fall semester courses on August 10, 1999, there was the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting. Five people were injured in the lobby, including three children and a teenager close to my age. The White supremacist gunman shot around 100 bullets into the lobby. The attack came just months after the Columbine High School massacre, the first of the extensive mass school shooting in American history, where two students killed 15. With the combination of attacks, as a 19-year-old, I let fear take over and win, even if we were taught not to, so I decided to take a different route in the Faculty of Arts. Instead, I pursued a double major in history and art history.
So often, Jewish day school graduates grow up and live in a Jewish bubble of school, camp, and community and only first experience antisemitism in university, especially now that anti-Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement rages on university campuses. In 2021, 32 percent of university students experienced antisemitism, mostly harassment, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel.  However, I first experienced antisemitism in school when the local and Catholic public high school broke the window in our basement cafeteria, and they threatened a couple of students. The principal had to escort them out to their carpool after school for their safety. Instead of making the incident a teachable moment about dealing personally with antisemitism, it was swept up the rug, leaving the fear of antisemitism out there to students, including myself. 
Ironically, one of my history professors returned me to Jewish studies. I was Professor Gil Troy’s research assistant, but when he wrote his article “Why I Am A Zionist” and the subsequent book, it inspired me not to fear antisemitism. As an undergraduate, I started taking some courses in Jewish studies, making Jewish history my second historical area. Later, when taking the Masters in Library and Information Studies, I attempted to incorporate Judaica Librarianship as my focus through assignments and jobs at the Jewish Public Library and McGill archives. As an undergraduate student, I created a website for Professor Troy for his book and all his Israel and Jewish-related articles. In 2004, he went to battle; he objected and protested McGill’s Faculty of Law’s decision to bestow an honorary degree to Mary Robinson. Robinson was the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who oversaw the 2001 Durban conference that declared Zionism is racism and did nothing to stop it.
As his research assistant, I put my name on the website I designed and maintained; in doing so, I was endorsing everything Professor Troy wrote and posted. There was the excitement of playing a small part in his heroic activism. Still, I also experienced the backlash in the form of an online stalker when I attended the MA in Judaic Studies program at neighboring Concordia University, the hotbed of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activity at the time. I was set to be a Teaching Assistant for the Introduction to Judaism undergraduate class; with my contact information on the syllabus, this pro-Palestinian student would not stop harassing and contacting me through email. Again, fears of antisemitism crept in; it is challenging to be active on a campus when someone is watching you because you support Israel and study Judaism. I became afraid to go on campus.
At a time when I was finally doing what I loved the most, academically studying Jewish history with some of the best scholars in their fields. Professor Ira Robinson and Professor Norma Joseph, both of who shaped how my love for Judaism. Studying with them, my knowledge transformed into a critical and analytical examination of Jewish religion and history that separates the Jewish education of day schools and introduction at the undergraduate level to the preparation and appreciation needed for serious study. I was fortunate to work as a research assistant for Professor Robinson as he researched Cyrus Adler, an early professional scholar of Jewish history, archeologist, educator, and lay religious leader. Cyrus helped develop many academic organizations that led to the modern professional study of Judaism. Cyrus did so when antisemitism in America rose while Leo Frank was lynched in Georgia.
Professor Troy taught Jews of all ages through his writings and lectures that when it comes to Jewish identity and Israel, we have to wear our hearts on our sleeves and do so proudly no matter what. Troy advocates Identity Zionism, which he adapted from his time as a camper, counselor, and educator in Young Judea. Troy defines that “Identity Zionism is not a self-absorbed nationalism knocking others down or building-up walls; it is a liberal nationalism that by building us up, individually and collectively, builds others up too.” 
However, it was only after my years in university that I became entirely comfortable with my Jewish and Zionist identity to go on my journey to quieter activism in what I call public education through my journalistic and academic writing. Throughout, my mother was the primary cheerleader as I delved into academic writing and research without what we define as the primary credential; the doctorate. I do not think without my mother’s encouragement and constant prodding; I would have had the confidence to have gone down this path.
I developed a voice writing about American and Canadian Jewish history, particularly antisemitism in early and Revolutionary America and the Civil War. While as a journalist, I covered Israeli politics, the American-Israel relationship, and current religious and demographic trends. I was always interested in Jewish education; I also began researching it after seeing the disconnect between Jewish youth from Israel in recent surveys despite the popularity and extent of Birthright Israel trips. I thought we should look at Israel and Zionist education from a less religious viewpoint than we do in North America and Diaspora to the mindset of Israelis as a civil religion. Education scholar Jonathan Woocher first researched the concept as a Jewish phenomenon with Federation Judaism of the 1980s and how Israel could be incorporated into formal and experiential education with that mindset.
One news issue close to my heart was antisemitism and anti-Zionism on university campuses. How the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement against Israel motivated other students. Particularly student governments who harass other students for simply being Jewish and supporting Israel. I wrote about the issues confronting students, particularly in Montreal at Concordia and McGill; I saw fear take over these students as it did me a few years before. In 2019, I was watching and reading about the events at McGill with Jordyn Wright and started writing what I thought would be another article to be posted on my Times of Israel blog; instead, I kept researching and discovering how many of these trends including antisemitism was ingrained in Canadian and Quebec educational history.
My research went from the philosemitism of the nineteenth century at McGill with the hiring of Abraham de Sola as a professor of Semitic languages, whose papers I worked on at McGill’s Archives, and that I also organized as an exhibit in Redpath Museum in June 2004. However, after the rise of Jewish immigration in the later part of the nineteenth century and through the First World War, the country’s opinion of Jews changed, the federal government restricted immigration, and society tried, in general, to limit Jewish involvement in professional, and social clubs, and neighborhoods. The mood also changed in McGill and universities throughout Canada and the US. They tried to suppress the number of Jewish students through unofficial quota systems in all faculties that lasted until after the Second World War. However, by that time, with the creation of the Modern State of Israel, the mood slowly turned towards negativity against Israel and Zionism, becoming mainstream with Quebec’s Silent Revolution. However, the tone only drastically changed at university campuses at the turn of the millennium with the anti-Zionism seen at Concordia, then the creation of the BDS movement, which does not subside.
As I write, Concordia is embroiled in another anti-Zionist controversy. On February 21, 2023, the Concordia student paper “The Link” published a front-page story, “Allied in Apartheid: Palestinian Students Denounce Concordia President’s Trip to Israel,” attacking the school’s university President, Graham Carr, and other university presidents for visiting Israel in 2022, in a similar fashion to the attack on McGill’s Faculty of Management having an exchange program with an Israeli university. The article comes twenty years after Concordia made a splash for the unofficial start of modern anti-Zionism on Montreal campuses when they protested, rioted, and broke windows when then-former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited to address the campus.
While researching my history of McGill, Jewish students on campus refuse to speak out. Last spring, as the SSMU passed another anti-Israel vote, the Palestinian Solidarity Policy, Jewish students did not publicly speak about the harassment they were enduring on campus and online, and neither would Jewish professors speak out publicly against the referendum motion. Both professors and students seemed afraid of reprisals. On Hillel’s Facebook groups, the chatters were about the club events and nothing about the SSMU motion. I approached students in the group looking to find out exactly what was happening on campus, the students’ firsthand accounts. I asked a group of over 300 students, and three answered, including the head of Hillel, who spoke to the news, and only one student was willing to speak up, the same student that has advocated throughout their time at McGill.
The fear was so great that the Hillel McGill Facebook group administrators stopped members from posting and allowed them to comment on the post, controlling the narrative and topics. We are still not teaching students how to confront antisemitism immediately with confidence in their Jewish identity. This reaction countered the message “Jewish on Campus posted on social media after the day of hate about their generation. They posted on Instagram, “We were definitely born in the right generation. Antisemitism is on the rise, and it’s scary, but we are living in a time where the Internet connects us across the world. Our generation is full of young, strong, proud Jews who are leading and will continue to fight against antisemitism.” 
This spring, I will teach an online course on antisemitism and anti-Zionism in Canada. It is unfortunate that we only look at the underlying problem with antisemitism in January for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in April/May whenever Yom HaShaoah is observed on the Jewish calendar, and if a terrible attack occurs, capturing the news and public’s interest or now with the announcement of a national day of hate. We must know the rates are rising, and antisemitism is a daily occurrence for so many Jews. It is nothing new and only a continuation of a long history in Canada and the US. In May 2022, PBS Newshour reported, “Antisemitic incidents hit a record high in 2021. What’s behind the rise in hate?” My course intends to attempt to answer this question and examine the current and historical trends of Antisemitism in North America and how it morphed into anti-Zionism and compare it to the trends in Canada and the United States.
In his sermon, Rabbi Zuckerman provided some solutions to combat anti-Semitism and to “plant and nurture into the people in your life.” He advised to “Cultivate your Jewish identity and the identity of those around you by doing Jewish. Embrace Jewish rituals, light Shabbat candles, invest time in Jewish literacy, read books of Jewish interest, travel to Israel, make Jewish decisions in your life, how you eat, how you spend your time, how you make charitable decisions, Judaism is a religion of very high ideals, that breaks it down into sound bites, simple daily deeds, elevate Jewish practice, incorporate some of those deeds into your life, and the life of your family. Remember that we are not passive individuals to be acted upon; we have agency, which Zionism and Israel have given us. And your actions might just be what transforms our reality.” 
My mother long worried about my involvement in controversies she did not think involved me; I disagreed, as all Jews, we are all engaged in fighting and teaching about anti-Semitism and strengthening Jewish identity enough to stand up to it. In this ever-changing Jewish world, we still find a way to instill a Jewish identity that finds the right balance of religion without disconnecting more liberal Jews and keeping them within the fold; that is where experiential education takes a cue. As Jews, we must instill the fearlessness and pride Tratt recounted of Orthodox Jewish youth standing up to antisemitism. She described how at an “American NBA game when a group of Orthodox Jews in kippot and wearing “Fight Anti Semitism” shirts, sat courtside and bravely faced Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, who, before the match, shared a link to the antisemitic film Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America.” Tratt praised their bravery in displaying their Jewish religious identity.
I now have an influence and reach to educate the public about the history and issues. I have seen that people, scholars, and students worldwide have read, cited, and taught my writings. Now entirely comfortable in my Jewish and Zionist identity, I am finally in a place to be a teacher with the confidence to face the issues the Jewish youth need to face head-on. I can be that role model that can teach them to be as secure as I am without confronting fear and setbacks I did. Sometimes we take a long winding road to reach our purpose in life, bring me full circle, and complete the educational journey I started with my mother.
 Rabbi Neil Zuckerman, Shabbat Sermon, Park Avenue Synagogue, February 25, 2023.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”
Ms. Goodman has a BA in History, and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”
Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history, and regularly writes on the “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.