Last week, I originally intended to write an opinion piece on the fight by Jewish students at St. George—under the banner of the Kosher Forward Campaign predominately spearheaded by Hillel U of T—to finally get kosher food options at university dining outlets. This fight became particularly newsworthy when the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) expressed hesitation at supporting the cause, due to Hillel’s Israel advocacy work.
This blatant act of antisemitism is trivializing the access to food which accommodates the observant Jewish population at the University of Toronto on the part of the UTGSU put the university as a whole in headlines around the world, undoubtedly tarnishing our reputation as an institution that prioritizes inclusivity and diversity. Subsequent—albeit half-hearted—apologies on account of the UTGSU, a condemnation by the UTSU, and their pledge to support the Kosher Forward campaign seemed to make a good effort at reconciliation toward U of T’s Jewish community.
However, when this event is seen in light of recent events at York University, it demonstrates a years-long worrying trend of the normalization of antisemitic rhetoric happening right here on our supposedly-inclusive university campuses.
At York, the Herut Zionism Club hosted a panel of IDF reservists to open a dialogue on the continuing Israel-Palestine conflict. They were met with considerable protests, which some described as borderline mob-like in their behaviour. Videos have surfaced of protestors chanting “Vivé Vivé intifada,” an Arabic term referencing popular uprisings, but in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict has often been accompanied by terroristic acts against Israeli citizens.
Other videos showed protestors attempting to block people from entering the event, and furthermore attempting to impede the panel by banging at the doors of the event space. There were even instances of violence between the sizeable protest group and some of the event-goers.
Audience members had to be escorted from the building by campus security following the event’s conclusion. The events of that night are, at the time of this piece being written, being investigated by the Toronto Police for instances of hate crimes.
Jewish-advocacy groups were quick to speak-out against this protest and all that came of it. Groups such as B’nai Brith and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center were quick to denounce the protests as activities of intimidation towards eventgoers which were riddled with antisemitic sentiment.
Politicians from across the partisan divide were quick to offer their support to the local Jewish community. The president of York University, Rhonda Lenton, reaffirmed the commitment of the university in fostering debate and dialogue—something the panelists of the event also mentioned was their intention during their discussion—and ensuring that this was only to come about in an environment free from intimidation.
And yet, groups behind the protests, such as Students Against Israeli Apartheid, insist that their protests were not targeting the Jewish communities but rather the IDF reservists, the institution they represent, and in general the Zionist project.
Besides the fact that the IDF has universal conscription, and thus the IDF is practically comprised of the entirety of the Israeli population, modern definitions of antisemitism—particularly the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by the likes of the EU, the UK, France, and furthermore by Canada this year as a component of the government’s anti-racism efforts—feature several key notions which seem to run contrary to the rhetoric employed by the protestors at the event, as well as the events that transpired at the St. George campus affecting the Kosher Forward movement.
Of particular importance are the notions that Jewish people are collectively responsible for the acts of Israel (which proves especially pertinent in the case of the UTGSA’s hesitation to endorse the Kosher Forward Campaign), the denial of Jewish self-determination (especially in regards to Students Against Israeli Apartheid and their links to the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a movement co-founded by Omar Barghouti who in the past has said that he “Most definitely, oppose[s] a Jewish state in any part of Palestine,” and that “Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property—such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries—are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.” This directly reflects the perspective of many in the Jewish community who identify with Israel as their ancestral homeland, and thus a coordinated protest of an Israeli event is, in effect, targeting their Jewish identity.
Of course, warranted criticism of the policies of Israel—as with any democracy—should assuredly be allowed to be open for dialogue, and indeed the panelists of the event at York made clear that is what they were there for. When this criticism intermingles with antisemitic notations, as what happens all too often, it becomes dangerous.
These past two events are by no means the only examples of antisemitism on Ontario university campuses, and are more indicative of a rising problem. South of the border, the Anti-Defamation League reported an 89 per cent surge in antisemitic incidents on American university campuses in 2017 when compared to the year prior. These antisemitic incidents aren’t isolated to university campuses either, with B’nai Brith noting that anti-Semitic incidents across Canada have steadily risen from 2013 to 2018.
The normalization of hostile rhetoric and actions toward Israel coupled with organizations that base themselves in Israeli advocacy work, the denial of the linkage between anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric, and the general demonization of any person or anything to do with Israel, contributes to this culture of intimidation that Jewish students face on our campuses. Take this as a wake-up call: we can, and we must, do better to create a more inclusive campus for our Jewish classmates.