Letter: I'm a Jewish survivor. SASC's involvement in divestment shows that not all trauma is treated equally on campus

As the bright lights of the Michael Kingsmill Forum melded with a chorus of cheers from the Divestment Coalition, my heart sank. Councillors filed out of the room, celebration filtered down the stairs of the Nest and I could do little but take in the mosaic of expressions on my friends’ faces. I could see the anger, fear, frustration and hurt expressed as tears, and a stoic defiance which Jews relied on to keep going through thousands of years and countless attempts at our annihilation where Jews have faced expulsions, state-sanctioned pogroms and ultimately, the Holocaust.

As two years of pandemic fears subside, campus feels ‘normal’ again for many, but not for the Jewish community at UBC. The emotions felt inside the forum did not abate. The next few weeks were communal therapy, stretched out over coffee chats, walks in the sun, study sessions, prayer and Shabbat dinners held behind the bullet-resistant glass and reinforced doors of Hillel and Chabad. The Jewish community did what we have always done in the face of adversity, discrimination and marginalization — we came together, to cry and mourn so we could heal, to heal so we could persevere and to persevere so we could live and thrive as joyous and proud Jews.

I cannot say for sure what was written on my face in these weeks besides a dull, burning anger — anger that my community and friends were hurting, that they were checking in frantically on loved ones in Israel as terrorist attacks became a regular occurrence and that nobody else seemed to care.

Lying in bed at night I’d wake up in fits, with an icy grip of fear clenching my stomach and a terrifying, paralyzing sense of dread. My mind kept circling back to a logo on the Divestment Coalition Solidarity Statement: AMS SASC.

SASC has a “[commitment] to the education, support, and empowerment of people of all genders and identities who have experienced sexualized violence.” It appears that SASC failed to recognize that many Jews and Israelis carry trauma because of this conflict — that doesn’t phase me. My tenure at UBC has given me time to recognize institutional apathy and ignorance as the norm on campus — especially when it comes to antisemitism and violence against Jews.

SASC’s Support and Advocacy team is trained “to provide confidential and non-judgemental emotional … support.” I naively believed SASC would acknowledge that Jews, Israelis and Palestinians have experienced individual and communal trauma as a product of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it would engage in good faith, with curious minds and an open heart to all involved.

So, the day after the motion passed, I sent the SASC this email: 

A screenshot of Dobrer's email to SASC following the passing of the divestment motion in AMS council on March 24.
A screenshot of Dobrer's email to SASC following the passing of the divestment motion in AMS council on March 24. Screenshot Adam Dobrer

Three months later, I have yet to hear back.

As a man and a survivor of sexual assault, I am no stranger to being disbelieved, shamed and silenced. As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I am no stranger to having my family history of persecution and genocide be appropriated, distorted and denied, being told that “others have it worse” and to “get over it.” I will admit, I still struggle with being disbelieved. These are the parts of me I paper over with the love of my family, friends and community, by wrapping tefillin and by living the most joyful and Jewish life I can live.

What hurts more is being ignored — to not even have the opportunity to be disbelieved. I refuse to remain ignored any longer. 

This letter is a reply to your violent silence: the kind of silence that views Jewish and Israeli trauma as discardable, marginal and irrelevant. SASC ignored my trauma as a Jewish and Israeli student. I feel compelled to speak up because I know I am not the only Jewish survivor that felt marginalized by SASC’s endorsement of divestment, a decision taken without any consultation with any Jewish AMS or university affiliated organization on campus. 

Palestinians carry intergenerational trauma stemming from Israeli-Palestinian conflict. SASC has so far refused to acknowledge Jewish and Israeli intergenerational trauma. Acknowledging Jewish pain, loss and suffering does not diminish Palestinian pain, loss and suffering, unless you view this conflict as a zero-sum game. Failing to hear Jewish and Israeli voices and failing to respond to survivors like myself is not an act of solidarity with Palestinians, but an alienation of the Jewish and Israeli communities which SASC is supposed to serve. 

SASC claims to be a trauma-informed organization — its signature on the divestment motion and the process by which that decision was taken calls that claim into question for me and other Jews on campus. In this case, to be selectively informed is to be misinformed. 

In the best light, SASC support for the divestment motion is a sincere expression of a commitment to resisting colonialism, rooted in the understanding that colonialism, genocide and sexualized violence are traumatizing experiences which overlap. You have been convinced that the world’s only Jewish state is somehow a vestige of European colonialism. Since SASC has chosen not to engage with the Jewish and Israeli community and continues to ignore the concerns of survivors like me, it falls on us to start the conversation.

This is not right and this is not fair, but we are used to it — life has been unfair for Jews for thousands of years. 

I am a survivor. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I deal with the fact that my boundaries were violated, that my voice was silenced and that like many survivors, I will not be believed when I share my story. My Judaism is a fundamental part of my story, and vital to my personal journey of healing. 

The fact that I am Jewish and alive is a miracle. I am alive thanks to the courage, tenacity and resilience of my relatives who survived: who chose their love of life over the immeasurable grief and guilt to know that so many of their friends, families and communities were utterly destroyed. This is what unites all of us, no matter what we have suffered, that we as Jews continue to choose life and continue to vow “Never Again!”

For all Jews today, “Never Again!” is a vow. And for the vast majority of Jews part of that vow is embodied in having a Jewish state with an army to defend it. This is modern Zionism at its essence. It is a belief that if we had a Jewish state in 1938, millions more Jews would be alive today. Hearing Jewish and Israeli perspectives does not deny or delegitimize Palestinian rights to self-determination or their national aspirations for a state of their own. 

Palestinians are connected to the same land I, and the vast majority of Jews, hold to be inextricable to our identity. I know for a fact that the Palestinian connection to the land and Palestinian experiences were conveyed with eloquence and sincerity by Palestinian students and activists to SASC. Jewish and Palestinian self-determination in the land need not be exclusive — that is a political choice. Jewish and Palestinian well-being and safety on campus should not be exclusive, either. 

To deny Jewish and Israeli students the same opportunity to share our experiences and stories tells me that they are discardable, marginal and unimportant to the conversation. Choosing to ignore Jewish and Israeli students will not ‘liberate’ Palestine. All it does is call into question your organizational capacity to provide equal and non-judgemental support to all survivors of sexualized violence. Every day SASC chooses not to engage with Jewish and Israeli lived experiences and trauma caused by the conflict is another day Jewish survivors of sexualized violence like myself must ask whether our trauma and survival will be treated with the same dignity and respect as our peers. 

What I want most is for SASC to listen to the Jewish community, in the spirit of its mandate to support all survivors on this campus. It must acknowledge that it wounded Jewish survivors of sexualized violence, even if it did not intend to. It needs to listen and learn from the Jewish community, to understand our communal history and the intergenerational trauma. 

These steps help me heal and help to rebuild Jewish community trust in SASC. It would also allow SASC to better understand intergenerational trauma, and thereby hopefully better support all survivors. Today, going to SASC for support feels alienating and painful. I fear my trauma will be misunderstood. I feel that to get support from SASC requires leaving fundamental pieces of myself at the door to be welcome. All students deserve to feel safe and supported when they experience sexual violence.

Right now, many Jews at UBC are not able to count on that from SASC.

I hope that can still change. 

Adam Yosef Dobrer is a fifth-year political science student at UBC and former President of UBC Israel on Campus.

This is an opinion letter. It does not reflect the opinions of The Ubyssey as a whole. You can submit an opinion at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.