An event advertised  under the name “Palestinian Popular Resistance: Building the Student Movement,” hosted by U of T Divest, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union ad-hoc committee on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) received criticism from several Jewish community groups, one of which interrupted the event entirely on January 12.

The event, held at the George Ignatieff Theatre, featured speakers Noura Erakat (via Skype), a human rights lawyer and assistant professor at George Mason University, and Nada Elia, an Iraqi-born Palestinian who works with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

“Our event highlighted the ongoing human rights crisis facing the Palestinian people in Palestine and Israel,” said Omar Sirri, a spokesperson for U of T Divest. “The persistent violations of international law by the Israeli state have led to renewed forms of popular resistance by Palestinians. Our event sought to educate the campus community about the dire conditions facing Palestinians.”

Support is only growing for our campaign calling on the University of Toronto to divest from companies profiting from violations of international law and war crimes against Palestinians. The success of our event is a testament to that,” Sirri said.

Various Jewish organizations ended up criticizing the event. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) put out a press release, stating that such events are “offensive and strike a deep nerve within our community.” CIJA also disputed the claim that the BDS movement was gaining momentum, citing the rejection of an ad-hoc BDS committee by the UTSU’s Board of Directors over the summer of 2015.

Hillel U of T, the local chapter of the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, sent a complaint to the vice provost’s office regarding the event.

“We were disgusted by the name and by the content of the event,” said Hillel U of T co-president Rachel Benezrah. “The recent wave of violence being perpetrated against innocent Israeli civilians is being labeled as legitimate ‘popular resistance’ acts by Palestinian leadership. Hillel felt that it was important to make our position known to the University of Toronto administration.”

Most notably, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) were present at the event and there was a heavy police presence outside the venue. The group advertised the event on their website and Facebook page, in which they characterized the event as a “call to murder Jews.”

After the event began, it did not take long for JDL members to heckle the speakers.

“Okay, this is outrageous!” shouted Meir Weinstein, the national director for JDL Canada. “This is incitement to murder Jews!” he yelled. Other JDL members vocally criticized the speakers as being anti-Semites during the event.

JDL members continued to shout throughout Erakat’s address. The organizers implemented a three-strikes policy, where an attendee would be asked to leave after three outbursts. Despite this policy, none of the JDL members who had accumulated three strikes left, nor were they forcibly removed by campus police.

Anticipating disruptive behaviour, the organizers had a room at OISE ready as an alternative location. Halfway through the event, the other attendees were asked to leave the theatre and were notified to head down to OISE 5170, where the event continued without further disruptions.

The JDL did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment. On Facebook, however, Weinstein declared their protest a success. “The pro terrorism meeting at U of T had to be moved. JDL was successful. They moved to OISE on Bloor Street and the room was to small and not setup [sic] for video. Most people left.”

Sirri, however, said that the JDL’s violent efforts failed. “The JDL’s violent disruption is yet another attempt by this hate group to shut down any discussion of the plight of the Palestinian people… The JDL’s failed attempt to shut our event down is just a microcosm of the Zionist disrupion, aggression, violence, and attempts at erasure that Palestinians face daily,” he said.

Sirri also took issue with the claim that the event represented an incitement to anti-Semitic violence. “Our work to affirm Palestinian human rights promotes life, an end to violence and an end to all forms of discrimination. This can only be done by addressing the root causes of the conflict, namely the brutal system of occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism advanced by the Israeli state. Any suggestion otherwise is a racist, bigoted attempt to discredit the work of activists supporting Palestinian human rights,” he said.

What is the Jewish Defense League?

The JDL is a far-right pro-Israel Jewish organization. The group was founded in 1968 by American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City, who also served on the Israeli Knesset.

In the past four decades, members of the JDL in the US were connected to various bombings of Soviet diplomatic offices, the assassination of Arab-American activist Alex Odeh, and conspiracies to murder suspected Neo-Nazis and Nazi collaborators. In 2001, the FBI classified the group as a right-wing terrorist group.

The Israeli political party that was founded by Kahane was also banned in Israel, as its members were connected in the killing of 29 Palestinians.

Many pro-Palestine activists consider the JDL a hate group and mainstream Jewish organizations have largely repudiated the group.

Benezrah told The Varsity that Hillel urged the administration to make sure campus police was present at the event and distanced her group from the JDL. “Hillel and JDL did not communicate in any way prior or during this event,” said Benezrah. CIJA has also previously rebuked the JDL, saying that “the Jewish community doesn’t need the Jewish Defense League.”

The JDL are no strangers to the university. In October 2014, another event held by U of T Divest was disrupted by the group. That event was also moved to a different location after the disruptions.

After that event, Sirri noted that U of T Divest was better prepared for this year’s event. “[We’re] able to learn from these experiences and adjust accordingly,” he said.

Calls on the administration

Prior to the event, the university’s Office of the Vice President, Human Resources & Equity sent a letter to the JDL, urging the group to comply with the law and the university’s policies.

“If members of your organization fail to comply with university policies, the university may issue a Notice of Trespass or general ban on members of the JDL, as well as pursuing whatever legal remedies it deems appropriate,” read a portion of the letter.

Sirri called upon the university administration to ensure the safety and security of students and faulty. 

“The question really is: To what extent is the University Administration committed to ensuring the safety and security of students and faculty engaging in academic debate?

If the University Administration claims to stand against all forms of oppression and violence, then it clearly must do more to address acts of intimidation and threats of violence — which itself is a form of
violence — against members of the campus community,” Sirri said.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, the university’s director of news & media relations, said that the university was disappointed in the conduct of some of the attendees and would be looking into the matter.

“We recognize that there are strong views on our campuses and those views may be disconcerting or even offensive to some. It is our clearly and frequently-articulated expectation that discussion and debate on such issues take place in a civil and respectful environment,” said Blackburn-Evans.