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Graduate Students’ Union accused of anti-Semitism in kosher food dispute

UTGSU formally apologizes after criticisms from Jewish campus group Hillel UofT
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EMMA TALLON/THE VARSITY
EMMA TALLON/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) is facing allegations of anti-Semitism for its original reluctance to support the Kosher Forward campaign, an initiative by Hillel UofT to bring kosher food to campus. Hillel UofT, a prominent Jewish organization on campus, has criticized the union for “conflating the Jewish fight for kosher food with [its] support of the Jewish state.” The UTGSU has since apologized and External Commissioner Maryssa Barras resigned on November 21 in the midst of the dispute.

Hillel criticizes the UTGSU

The controversy began when a UTGSU Board of Directors member reached out to Barras to ask if the UTGSU Executive Committee would present an Executive Motion at its upcoming General Council meeting in support of the Kosher Forward campaign. The response given by Barras, according to the UTGSU’s statement, “mistakenly… insinuated that the UTGSU Executive Committee might be reluctant to bring the motion forward to the UTGSU General Council/Board-of-Directors as a result of Hillel being ‘pro-Israel.’”

However, in her response Barras also directed the member to other avenues to submit the motion, according to the UTGSU’s statement.

In its press release, Hillel condemned the conflation of Israel and all Jewish issues as a form of anti-Semitism.

Responding to Hillel’s press release, the UTGSU wrote on November 17 that the original comments were “not on behalf of the UTGSU’s executive committee,” and stated that it provided the student with an avenue to submit the motion through the Equity and Advocacy Committee.

Hillel’s central complaint with the UTGSU’s apology was that it did not “address the anti-Semitic nature of their original response.”

This is not the first time that the UTGSU and Hillel have been in conflict. Last February, the UTGSU enacted a permanent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Committee on Israel, leading Hillel to comment that they were “very disappointed” with the decision.

UTGSU external commissioner resigns

After representatives from both Hillel and the UTGSU met for discussions, the UTGSU announced in a November 21 press release that Barras had submitted her resignation. The press release notes that the resignation was due to “the anti-Semitic comments written regarding the Kosher Forward Campaign.”

The UTGSU “[recognizes] that this incident reveals a larger issue of anti-Semitism and discrimination,” also noting that the Executive Committee will undergo anti-oppression training in order to address anti-Semitism in their organization.

After the resignation press release, Hillel wrote that it is “grateful” that the UTGSU has expressed a “willingness to bring forward a motion to support the Kosher Forward campaign,” and suggested the possibility of the two groups working together to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Kosher Forward

Hillel represents U of T’s Jewish student population, which is estimated at 1,000–1,500 students. It started the Kosher Forward petition for greater access to kosher food on campus, led by students Sofia Freudenstein and Chaim Grafstein.

Grafstein said that the motivation behind the project was “this sense that as a Jewish student on campus you have to ask for a lot in order to get kosher food, and you feel this huge burden to make a case for yourself wanting or needing kosher food.”

Grafstein said that he wanted to get involved in the cause when he was invited to a conference held by his department, which he claims did not provide kosher food for those who required it. “And there was a noticeable group of people who kind of felt excluded, because they just couldn’t eat anything.”

Currently, students who keep kosher have no options for kosher food in residence meal plans or from U of T-run food vendors on campus. There are no kosher meal plans in the residence system, and students who keep kosher cannot share a kitchen that is not kept kosher. In the meantime, Hillel has been filling the need for kosher food by providing access to kosher dinners during the week and kosher snacks in its office.

“Their time on campus is marked by food uncertainty,” reads the petition’s description of students who keep kosher, noting that many other universities provide more kosher options than U of T.

As the campaign ended on November 23, the petition and its signatures were sent to the Office of the President, with whom Hillel is requesting a meeting in order to discuss the petition. Although Grafstein noted that the petition already has a few hundred signatures, he emphasized that “It’s an issue of accessibility, not an issue of numbers.”

Community response

Freudenstein and Grafstein expressed their disappointment at the campaign being politicized: “I very much care about the kosher campaign and saw it as a non-partisan issue,” said Freudenstein. “This kind of exploding — I just didn’t sign up for this.”

Grafstein commented that as a graduate student, he felt that the UTGSU’s apology was lacking. “At the beginning of [UTGSU] meetings there’s an equity statement that’s read [and] included in that is anti-Semitism, so to see a statement and an apology that doesn’t even use the word anti-Semitism and instead uses phrases like ‘harmful toward Jewish students at U of T… is really hurtful and it feels like my participation in equity in the UTGSU is compromised as a Jewish student.”

In an email from the UTGSU Executive Committee, which was sent on November 25, the group wrote that Barras’ resignation was her own decision and that “the UTGSU has not taken a stance on the Kosher Forward Campaign, as was mentioned in the initial email response as well as in the public memo. The UTGSU Executive Committee has contacted Hillel representatives, and is looking forward to continuing dialogue with them.”

A university spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Varsity that the UTGSU is an “autonomous student organization that acts independently from the University of Toronto.”

The UTGSU “[is] required by university policy to operate in an open, accessible and democratic manner and to allow a diversity of perspectives to be heard. We have written to the group to remind them of this obligation,” noted the spokesperson.

The university also expressed willingness to discuss the campaign and explore further options for kosher food on campus in an email to The Varsity.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union, representing undergraduate students, released a statement in support of the petition.

Barras declined The Varsity’s request for comment.

Editor’s Note (November 25, 5:17 pm): This article has been updated to include comment from the UTGSU Executive Committee. It has also been updated to correct that there are no other vacancies on the executive committee other than the external commissioner.