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Op-ed: University of Toronto needs to address discrimination against Jewish students

U of T students and faculty discussed growing concerns of antisemitism at virtual panel
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Hillel U of T's office, one of the Jewish student groups on campus. EMMA TALLON/THE VARSITY
Hillel U of T's office, one of the Jewish student groups on campus. EMMA TALLON/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article contains discussions of antisemitism.

Antisemitism is not new to the University of Toronto; however, it continues to be dismissed, silenced, and diminished by the institution. In March, we — the authors — participated in a town hall discussion that has reached over 3,700 individuals, concerning discrimination against the Jewish student body. Within the next few days, we submitted this article to The Varsity for publication. It has taken over two months to be published, which contributes to our statement’s urgency. We acknowledge that this information has reached you in a delayed fashion; however, the current synagogue burnings, attempted lynchings, and cyberbullying against Jewish individuals emphasize the importance and ongoing nature of this issue.

On March 23, U of T students, faculty, and community members gathered online to discuss the growing issues of antisemitism across the University of Toronto’s three campuses. B’nai Brith Canada organized the virtual panel, and 34 diverse Jewish organizations and synagogues supported the panel, which aimed to share experiences that the Jewish community at U of T faces and to demand action to address these concerns. We think it’s important to highlight the fact that the support we’ve received is coming from all spectra of the Jewish community. 

Over the past several years, there have been concerns about antisemitism at many Canadian universities, but in our experience, those at the University of Toronto have gone mostly unnoticed. It is far past time for Jewish voices from this school to be heard. Michael Mostyn — chief executive officer of B’nai Brith Canada — said, “no one should be made to feel vulnerable or unsafe in the place where they study or work.” In fact, antisemitism at U of T has been an extant problem for many decades, if not longer. 

We agree with this sentiment. It is time for action. As discussed at the event, U of T has equity bylaws already in place; the difficulty seems to lie in the apparent unwillingness or inability of U of T to enforce its own bylaws when it comes to antisemitism, but oddly enough, this does not seem to be the case with regard to other minoritized groups affected by on-campus racism. 

Yet we know that with the support of the administration and the student body, we can create an inclusive environment, conducive to learning for every student — in this case, Jewish students. U of T is a prestigious institution that values inclusivity, equity, and justice. It was the consensus of those at the town hall that the university has not consistently applied these values to safeguarding our community. The University of Toronto Jewish community has been calling for action on nearly every level with appeals to the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), motion propositions at the faculty level, and proposed amendments and motions at the undergraduate level. 

Antisemitism on campus is a multifaceted and wide-ranging issue. What little action we have seen has been performative at best. The recently formed Anti-Semitism Working Group was created with the intent to merely study and propose possible solutions to instances of antisemitism, and the commitments made by executive members of the UTGSU and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union to take antisemitism training have not materialized. 

Students on all three campuses have been confronted with age-old antisemitic comments and actions. Two students from UTSC, Tyler Samuels and one of us, shared personal stories of hateful comments directed toward the Jewish community. Samuels told the audience about his friend, who while standing in line at Tim Hortons on campus, was called a “dirty Jew” by a fellow student while having coins thrown at them. One of us has been asked, “Where are your horns?” which is a clear example of the ignorance that feeds demonization and hostile attitudes faced by Jewish students. Faculty have also experienced this antagonistic attitude: Howard Tenenbaum, a professor in the Faculty of Dentistry, encountered stereotypes about Jews and finance simply due to his Jewish identity. 

The university has ways to address this racism right now. The university needs to enforce its own anti-racism and inclusivity bylaws. The university must apply its existing safety precautions and help students and faculty on a direct and individual level. We should feel comfortable coming forward about the issues we are facing, and we should see action being taken to make us feel safe, welcome, and represented. 

These bylaws are enforced for discriminatory acts against many other minoritized groups. Why are Jewish students not getting equitable protection? We believe that the student population stands against bigotry of any kind and should speak up for those whose voices are not being heard. No club at the University of Toronto should be allowed to spread hatred against Jews, nor do we, Jewish students, deserve apathy from the university upon our reports of these incidents. 

The town hall panel agreed that some of these issues have purportedly not been addressed because of a lack of clarity regarding what constitutes antisemitism. As with any other minoritized group, Jews have the right to define what antisemitism is. We do not need others to define this for us. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism was designed to help people and administrators identify the various presentations of antisemitism, particularly the newer and more subtle forms. It also helps differentiate between the actions of individuals and governments, and expresses that there should not be double standards in how people react to Israel’s adoption of policies or legal action. 

Yet this is what we see with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement when Jewish students are immediately associated with, and assumed to be responsible for, all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Are Chinese students held responsible for the abuses against the Uighur population perpetrated by China? And along those lines, is the very existence of China as a sovereign state ever questioned? The answer is a resounding no, and they should not be. It seems only the legitimacy of the nation state of the Jewish people — Israel — is ever questioned or challenged. 

Movements like BDS that claim that the IHRA definition of antisemitism restricts freedom of speech simply do not understand the IHRA definition. They claim the definition includes an overt, compulsive and hyperbolic focus on perceived transgressions committed by the Jewish state as being characteristics of antisemitism. Not only does the IHRA definition not stifle legitimate criticism of Israel by labelling them as antisemitic, but in fact, the IHRA emphasized that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” What could be clearer? 

But in the end, and notwithstanding the legitimacy of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in relation to the State of Israel, antisemitic behaviour against Jewish students is intolerable, especially on our campus. Multiple students on the panel described the lack of security and inclusion experienced at the university. When we — the authors — are unable to recommend our campus to other Jews because of the environment, we know we have reached an entirely unacceptable point. Therefore, we ask students to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community and share these concerns. 

The University of Toronto is a world-renowned learning and research institute with extensive equity bylaws. As Jewish students, we should be allowed to focus on our studies and not be required to defend our mere presence on campus and worry about being singled out for hate. Now is the time to use existing bylaws — hopefully informed in part by the IHRA definition of antisemitism — to allow us to be students in the truest sense. 

To emphasize this point further, we call on the university to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, just like the federal government, the provincial government, the University of Manitoba’s student union, the University of Western Ontario’s student union, the Global Imams Council, and many other international universities, organizations, and countries have done. 

Gabriela Rosenblum is a fifth-year student doing a psychological science co-op at UTSC. Yardena Rosenblum is a third-year student doing a neuroscience co-op at UTSC. Gabriela is a Hasbara Fellow and executive of Jewish Student Life at UTSC, and Yardena is the president of Jewish Student Life at UTSC, a Hillel Student Leader and a StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellow.