On October 27, students gathered at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) to discuss and debate how U of T’s investment practices are complicit in human rights abuses and violations of international law. Most of those in attendance came to hear fellow students and academics share information about the situation in Palestine, and what could be done – but not all of them.

An off-campus hate group attended the event to launch a direct attack on academic debate and freedom of speech. Rather than stand up for these core principles on campus, the university took actions that supported this group.

In 2005, close to 200 Palestinian civil society organisations called on international allies to support them in launching Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), a campaign to achieve basic universal human rights. BDS is aimed at pressuring Israel to halt blatant violations of international law, such as the continuous construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, the on-going destruction of Palestinian homes, and restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. Thousands of international civil society organisations have heeded this call, including student unions across North America and Europe. In 2012, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), representing over 15,000 students, joined the campaign. Earlier this year the Ontario Canadian Federation of Students, representing 300,000 students across the province, also voted to support the campaign.

BDS is one of the few tools we have to express our support for Palestinians facing military blockades, dispossession of land, and indiscriminate attacks by the Israeli military. The campaign makes these issues local and asks institutions like ours to withdraw investments from companies complicit in these abuses. Our university has substantial investments in three corporations — Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman — that directly support the Israeli military’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land. These companies have aided the Israeli military through the sale of hellfire missiles, bomber jets, and information technologies that facilitate the continued land, air, and sea blockade of Gaza, which contains nearly two million residents.

At the end of last month, the UTGSU formally launched a campaign called U of T Divest, which urged our university to divest from these companies. The message is simple: students’ money should not support war crimes. This is hardly a controversial position, and it is one supported by millions of students around the world. Even our colleagues in the Ivy League down south are recognising the importance of the campaign, with a growing BDS movement at Princeton. More broadly, the campaign paves the way for the university to adopt ethical investment practices with all of its funds.

The campaign’s growth and popularity has led to a backlash from university administration. These have ranged from bureaucratic efforts to thwart campus organizing — such as blocking pro-Palestinian student groups from booking meeting spaces — to more recently providing de facto support and cover for known hate groups. One such group calls itself the “Jewish Defense League” (JDL). The JDL is a hate group banned in the United States and, ironically, banned from participating in Israeli politics because of its blatantly racist positions. Its litany of abuses is too long to list, but one extreme example is when a JDL member massacred 29 Muslims kneeling in prayer at a West Bank mosque. The JDL described the killings as a “preventative measure.”

On October 27, the JDL deliberately disrupted the BDS campaign launch event by hurling racial epithets at students and visiting speakers, accosting student organisers and attendees, and refusing to exit the room even after being granted time and space to air their vile rhetoric. They went on to accuse anyone who sought their removal from the premises of being supporters of “dirty Arab terrorism” and those who “want to throw acid in the faces of unveiled women.” They also claimed that any “white” supporters of the BDS campaign must have been born with mental disabilities.

We only wish this was the most disturbing aspect of the evening.

Event organizers followed university policy to the letter, giving disrupters three opportunities to cease their disturbances after which they were asked to leave the event. They refused. Again according to the university’s own policies on the disruption of meetings, the university should have then found us an alternative safe space in order to continue the meeting. It did not. Instead, the university played directly into the hands of the disrupters and called for the event to be cancelled without explanation. The JDL were permitted to remain on the premises for over an hour while countless students and faculty were forced to wait in the building’s foyer. With the help of supportive faculty, we were able to secure another room where the event continued.

Through its actions, the university was complicit in supporting a known hate group. In light of this, we are forced to ask whether the university can stand by its claim to foster an environment conducive to “tolerance and mutual respect” in which “radical prescriptions for social ills can be debated.”

In their official response to concerns aired separately by faculty who were present that evening, the university claims to “recognise that there are strong views on our campuses” which “may be discomfiting or even offensive to some.” The problem with this is that the JDL is not representative of campus views; and this is not simply a case of one perspective drowning out others. What occurred is nothing less than a student-organized event being disrupted by an off-campus hate group. The university’s actions raise serious questions about its ability to follow its own policies aimed at ensuring student safety on campus.

There cannot be any tolerance for bigots who seek to bully and intimidate students that engage in academic debate and freedom of speech. Moreover, the university conduct continues to silence voices calling for basic human rights for Palestinians and adherence to international law.

What happened on the evening of October 27 is symptomatic of events occurring on campuses in Canada and around the world. The mainstream popularity of the movement has left defenders of Israel and university administrators scrambling for new tools to shut down debate, organizing, and action calling for social justice.

In spite of these attacks, the U of T Divest campaign will continue. Though stunned by the complacency demonstrated by our university administration, we remain steadfast and stand in solidarity with the student unions at Ryerson and York, who have endorsed the BDS campaign.

We hope that when you — students, staff, faculty, and alumni — visit www.UofTdivest.com you will sign the petition in support of the divestment campaign.

Three decades ago, U of T was one of the last Canadian universities to divest from apartheid South Africa. When it finally did, the walls of apartheid had already begun to crumble. The university was ultimately on the right side of history, though just barely. When it comes to Palestine, will the university be able to say the same thing? Maybe. But it will be up to us to make them.

Chris Webb is a PhD student in the Department of Geography.

Omar Sirri is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science. Both are members of the UTGSU BDS Ad Hoc Committee.