The American-Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner recently ranked U of T as the third worst university in North America for Jewish students. Among the criteria used to generate the rankings were: “the number of antisemitic incidents on each campus; the number of anti-Israel groups, and the extent to which they are active; the Jewish student population, and number of Jewish or pro-Israel groups; the availability of Jewish resources on campus; the success or lack thereof of Israel boycott efforts; and the public positions of faculty members with respect to [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions].”
Specifically, U of T was given such a high ranking due to “a recent proliferation of blatant antisemitism,” as well as having “hosted a considerable number of events in recent years portraying the Jewish state as barbarous and colonialist.”
From the perspective of The Algemeiner, U of T appears to be a very hostile environment with a one-sided view on Israel. From my perspective as a Jewish student, this is not entirely accurate.
That’s not to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist at this university. Although I have not personally experienced any significant anti-Semitism, I am aware of such occurrences, and I do not wish to discredit anyone’s experiences.
Earlier this year, swastikas were found spray-painted on signs around campus. When I reached out to the Jewish Facebook group Jew of T, one student claimed that they were not permitted to retake a quiz they missed due to Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year — and was told that Rosh Hashanah was not a real holiday, despite it being considered the second most important holiday in Judaism.
The Algemeiner acknowledged that its ranking system did not even consider the Jewish community on campuses when making its determinations — at U of T it is strong, diverse, and vibrant.
Additionally, the idea that U of T is an ‘anti-Israel’ campus is inaccurate. There are a wide variety of viewpoints on Israel and Palestine at the university, and for the most part, these views are all given space; there have been many Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions events on campus, but there have been plenty of pro-Israel events too.
Beyond that, The Algemeiner erroneously assumes that being ‘anti-Israel’ is anti-Semitic. I say this knowing full well that the issues are serious and complicated and can involve great personal emotional stakes — as well as with the understanding that some people make criticisms of Israel from an anti-Semitic viewpoint or use issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to make anti-Semitic comments.
However, criticisms of Israel are not inherently anti-Semitic and to say that they are by default is to shut down conversation around a very important topic.
Shutting down this kind of debate essentially gives Israel a free pass to take actions that can be considered human rights abuses or illegalities under international law, such as building settlements in the West Bank. It also does not allow Palestinians to stand up for their rights or their nationhood.
In fact, sometimes critiques of Israel come from Jews — both in Israel and abroad. I find much about Israel worth criticizing. Though I personally do not support the BDS movement, I know many Jews who do.
It is unfortunate that left-wing Jews, with a wide variety of opinions on Israel, can find themselves subject to unfair criticisms from fellow Jews on the right. I wrote an article last year in defense of the U of T Divest movement’s right to hold uninterrupted events and received comments comparing me to people who ignored the coming of the Holocaust. I’ve heard of other Jews being called misguided, self-hating, and ‘kapos’ — a term referring to prisoners in concentration camps who acted as guards for the SS.
These kinds of comments are short-sighted. Just as it is inappropriate when those on the left excuse anti-Semitism by discussing Israel’s transgressions — real and perceived — it is inappropriate to refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue by shutting down all criticisms of Israel as being anti-Semitic.
Based on my experiences as a Jewish student here, as well as my understanding of anti-Semitism, U of T should not have ranked so highly on The Algemeiner’s list. However, I understand that plenty of Jews will disagree with me, and they are most welcome to. Though The Algemeiner may not understand it, a single viewpoint expressed at U of T is not representative of the whole campus and ought not to be seen that way.
Adina Heisler is a second-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English.