Opinion: To heal a fractured campus

Eitan Feiger is a fourth-year history student and the Vice President and Treasurer of UBC’s Chabad Jewish Student Centre.

Last November, I interviewed my grandmother for an oral history project — one I had been meaning to do for a long time — about her experience surviving the Holocaust. 

As the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, I can affirm the reality of intergenerational trauma. Yet, as I listened to her story, I realized she was teaching me valuable, timeless lessons from which our UBC community can apply on campus. That is why I am obligated to share her story with you — so that we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. 

My grandmother was 13 years young when her parents and most of her family were taken away from her and deported, either to be shot on their way to Bergen-Belsen or exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

My grandmother, my safta (as I call her in Hebrew), was a little girl, orphaned, vulnerable and left all alone. 

She had every right to be bitter and resentful, to identify herself as a perpetual victim and to rightfully blame the Nazis for her suffering. 

But she did not.

She could never forgive nor forget the evil perpetrated by the Nazis. However, with this in mind, she had to move on with her life. The way she redeemed tragedy was not to define herself as the victim of the past, asking “Who did this to me?,” but rather by taking responsibility for the future, asking “Given these circumstances, how can I help to put this situation right?”

This was the greatest eternal lesson I have learned from my grandmother and all the Holocaust survivors I have ever met: never internalize a victim mentality. Otherwise, you will not only become consumed with hate but also enslaved to the past. 

As Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once said, “To be free, you have to let go of hate.”

My grandmother took that negative energy and elevated it toward a higher purpose: toward marrying my grandfather, toward raising a family, toward giving back to her community.

Her all-encompassing identity, attitude and purpose in life has been not based on the hate of others. Rather, her identity is based on the love of her fellow Jews, of being grateful for her heritage and everything else she had. 

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said. There was one thing from my grandmother that even the Nazis could never take away: her will to be proudly Jewish. 

UBC campus today

For my grandmother, the Hamas massacre that took place on October 7, 2023 triggered painful memories from the Holocaust. “Never again,” the lesson we learned from the 6 million Jews murdered in cold blood, has now become “ever again.”

The amount of toxic hate I have seen on my campus (and other universities as well) since October 7 has been both disheartening and overwhelming. From disrespectful comments on social media posts to provocative posters on campus demonizing the other side to verbal and physical harassment of students, there is a small, yet vocal minority of students who create a highly flammable atmosphere on campus. 

At UBC, I have witnessed students chanting the phrase “globalize the intifada,” a term which has historically been used in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not for “peaceful resistance,” but for terrorizing Jews with suicide bombings, shooting attacks stabbings and other means of armed violence. I have witnessed students blacklisting other students because they do not agree with their opinions. I have witnessed students rudely spamming hateful comments (which are now taken down) on UBC’s social media page to take advantage of International Holocaust Remembrance Day to push a political message.

When I hear that “hate has no place on campus,” I unfortunately continue to observe the opposite.

This is also the reason why I dropped my Middle East studies minor. Every time I walked into the classroom, the negative energy was palpable. I was walking on eggshells bringing up my Jewish identity or even mentioning the word “Israel.” Every day, I had to hide my kippa under my hat so that my classmates with different viewpoints would not identify me as Jewish and publicly shame me. In short, I did not feel welcome.

At a university, a safe space should not be a place where you are protected by those with whom you agree from those with whom you disagree. That is called groupthink.

Rather, a safe space should be a place where you make space for those who disagree with you so that each can listen to the other with respect.

Whether or not you agree with Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim or any claims, there is no justification whatsoever to scream, silence or slander others with whom you disagree. Right now, our university needs more civility and calm for all students. 

Yes, we must acknowledge that there are a significant amount of casualties on both sides of the conflict. Yes, we must acknowledge each other’s suffering. At the very least, we can all agree that every human life is sacred with equal dignity.

While we cannot control external circumstances halfway across the world from us, we can control how we respond to it. We can choose to wallow in misery and demonize the other (asking “Who did this to me?”), or we can take action to recognize each other's suffering and elevate it to something positive (asking “Given these circumstances, how can I help to put this situation right?”).

Now, how do we do that?

Listening, not labelling

Opening yourself up to someone whose colour, culture, class or creed is different from yours can seem daunting. In an age of echo chambers, filtered media and narrowcasting, we all have a tendency to tune in to that which aligns only with our own viewpoint while tuning out others. 

However, it is precisely the people not like us that make us grow. 

From clubs tabling on campus to classmates sitting next to you, there are plenty of opportunities to actively seek out diverse perspectives. 

We need to learn how to listen for the sake of learning, not labelling.

If one has a monopoly on the truth, then why bother listening to others? Because, as a mystical Jewish saying goes: “A full vessel cannot receive.” It is only by acquiring humility, the sense of opening ourselves up to something beyond ourselves, that we realize our own perspective is merely one finite fragment of an infinitely fractured truth. 

Thus, I’ve reflected on three ideas worth sharing: 

First, there is no justice for any person or people without listening to the other side.

Second, that true peace, in our relationships with others and toward ourselves, comes as a result of active listening.

And third, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.”

Listening to the other is the first step toward recognizing the “dignity of difference.”

The antidote to hate

Hate, like COVID-19, is a virus. Viruses do not distinguish between different types of people, but rather rapidly fester and grow into an infectious force that threatens us all. Historically, for example, the Nazi regime may have started with Jews, but it never ended with Jews. Nazis not only targeted Jews but also Roma, Sinti, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities and political dissidents. Hate knows no bounds. 

With this in mind, I offer three practical suggestions for what each of us can do on an everyday level to bring more hope to campus.

First, take a moment to unplug your AirPods or headphones. Just do it! Whether it’s while sitting on the bus or walking on campus, withdraw from your isolated world for five minutes and acknowledge someone you don’t know by saying hello with a genuine smile. Give them your full, undivided attention and start a friendly conversation. Humanizing starts with acknowledging the other.

Second, take a class from a perspective you have never heard from before. I am a history major; I never considered taking an environmental history course before simply because I was not interested. But it is precisely for this reason that I am taking the course. Now, I realize how I could see my pre-existing knowledge and interests from a new, oblique angle I would have never seen otherwise.  

And third, follow social media accounts of people with different viewpoints from your own. Just like our earbuds, we are constantly using our phones. Every time we open Instagram or Twitter, we are training ourselves to focus on our interests and are quick to judge other accounts as not worth our time. Instead of judgment, be curious and interact with accounts to train yourself to learn from others, not label them.  

We are first and foremost a community, of students and professors, of friends and family, of human beings with human emotions. Divided, we are more susceptible to hate. United, however, we have the potential to become force multipliers of hope over hate.   

Each one of us should ask ourselves: Are we taking action to further fracture our world, or heal it?

If we are to heal our fractured world, we must first recognize that each and every one of us has the power and influence to turn negative energy into positive energy, just like my grandmother did.

If she could continue to spread light after going through the darkest chapter in human history, how much more so can every one of us dispel the darkness of hate by becoming beacons of light in our community here at UBC.

It all starts with one positive thought, one friendly compliment, one good deed. 

It all starts with you.

This is an opinion article. It reflects only the author's views and does not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Have something to say about what you just read? Contribute to the conversation and send a letter to the editor in response or your own submission at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.