Over 60 U of T professors have signed a petition to President Meric Gertler asking him to take action against anti-Semitism on campus. The petition was released on November 18, 2019, following an incident between Hillel UofT and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), where the union was accused of anti-Semitism. The petition authors say that Gertler has recently agreed to a meeting.
In November, the UTGSU’s former External Commissioner, Maryssa Barras, sent an email to Hillel in response to its request for support of its campaign to bring kosher food to campus. The email allegedly insinuated that the union would not support the campaign as a result of Hillel’s “pro-Israel” stance. The union has since apologized and Barras has resigned.
The text of the petition mainly criticizes the UTGSU, which, along with the incident over kosher food, has formally supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement since 2012. The BDS movement aims to economically sanction the state of Israel and boycott organizations that support it.
This is done in an effort to dissuade Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, which has been condemned as illegal by the United Nations. Some critics of the movement, including the petitioners, argue that the movement’s sole focus on Israel, and anti-Semitic comments made by the movement’s leadership, point toward anti-Semitic intentions behind the movement itself.
In an article published in the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) on February 7, Psychology Professor Stuart Kamenetsky and Dentistry Professor Howard Tenenbaum expressed disappointment at the lack of an expedient and adequate response from the university at the time, especially as Gertler had written an article on preventing anti-Semitism at U of T for CJN in September 2019.
Kamenetsky, the Undergraduate Director and Program Advisor of Psychology at UTM, said in an interview with The Varsity that Gertler’s article “promised that [anti-Semitism was] something that he really cares about and will do something about. So then when he never responded to us, we really felt that that was not a good-faith type of practice.” According to Kamenetsky, the president granted the group’s request for a meeting after the CJN article was published.
“We’re not even commenting on [whether] what the state of Israel does is right or wrong,” said Kamenetsky. “The bigger issue is that Jewish students on campus should not in any way, shape, or form be held responsible for what another country does.” He feels that “the BDS movement does just that.”
The petition lists five demands for the university to fulfill. The first two pertain to the UTGSU. The first one asks that the university condemn the union’s actions in the incident over the kosher food campaign. “We really felt that the University of Toronto should actually issue a clear statement condemning [about] what happened over there, and it really didn’t,” said Kamenetsky.
The second demand asks that the university investigate the UTGSU for any “policies and campaigns it utilizes that are informed by antisemitic or otherwise discriminatory worldviews.”
The third item, which requests the university’s help in providing more access to kosher food on campus, has already achieved partial success, as kosher food is now available at three locations in UTSG.
The next demand references a graduate student complaint against the UTGSU BDS committee through the university’s Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies (CRCSS), and asks that the university help expedite the complaint, alleging that the complaint “has been stymied at every turn.”
Lastly, the petition asks the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Kamenetsky expects that if the university does adopt the IHRA definition, this “will really shut down BDS and many organizations [that we] now feel that are just a modern form of antisemitism.”
The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Overall, Kamenetsky identified one of the main concerns of the petitioners as “that sense that if this goes unchecked at the University of Toronto, it will just bring about a bigger decline.”
In a statement to The Varsity, a spokesperson for the UTGSU’s BDS Caucus wrote, “The [BDS] movement has been clear and consistent about its goals, aims, and practices. It is unfortunate that supporters of Israeli apartheid remain committed to misinformation, at the expense of Palestinian liberation and international law.”
Going forward, the group hopes to add more signatures and increase the diversity of the signatories, as Kamenetsky noted they are mostly from the St. George campus and in the medical faculties.
U of T Media Relations wrote in a statement to The Varsity that “the President and senior administrators have reviewed the letter. The group has raised a number of concerns and the University is following up.”
Editor’s Note (February 25, 9:10 pm): This article has been updated to clarify wording around the BDS movement’s stance on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.