A statement signed by over 50 student groups at U of T includes a demand for the Munk One program to discontinue its Beyond the Classroom trips to Israel, posted by the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) on June 21. The unions that have signed the statement include the University of Toronto Students’ Union executive, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union.

This demand was first brought up in a petition that has gained over 2,500 signatures since it was posted on Change.org a month ago. The petition was started by five U of T students, including three Munk One alums and two students unaffiliated with the Munk School.

The petition raises concerns about the ethics and biases of the optional summer abroad opportunity, which is offered to alums of Munk One, a first-year foundation program run by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

Concerns over lack of Palestinian perspective

Jerusalem, Israel is one of the three destinations that have been offered in the past as part of the Beyond the Classroom program. According to Munk One’s website, students can choose between several programs at Hebrew University, including a “Coexistence in the Middle East” program that examines “contrasting narratives” of the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

The group behind the petition claims that these narratives are biased toward Israeli perspectives on the conflict, because program participants live at or near Hebrew University dormitories, where they are immersed in Israeli society and study with Israeli professors and students. In addition, the petition questions the narrative of “coexistence” between Israelis and Palestinians, given that Israel violates the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights by restricting Palestinian mobility in the West Bank and blockading Gaza. 

The petition further asserts that Munk One and its alums erase Palestinian identity and culture in their advertisements of the trip, by not using Palestinian or Arab terminology. For example, student blog posts on the Munk School’s website only use the Jewish name — Temple Mount — for the site that is also al-Aqsa Mosque.

One of the petition’s creators, Sarah Rana, added in an interview that for advertising the trips to Israel, the Munk One website uses a photo of the al-Aqsa Mosque, despite the fact that it is located in East Jerusalem, which the United Nations considers to be occupied by Israel. 

“Seeing this deliberate erasure of marginalized Palestinians from a school interested in studying ‘Global Affairs’ is incredibly disheartening,” the petition claims.

Alongside Rana, four other students helped create the petition, including Sidrah Rana and Mariam Ali.

In an email to The Varsity, a representative of the MSA wrote that because of the trip’s alleged biases, it “creates a hostile environment on campus, especially for those with direct ties to Palestine and those who have been displaced themselves.” 

Experiences of trip alums 

Munk One alum Jared Connoy told The Varsity that his 2017 trip to Israel was an “awful” educational experience. “We heard from very few Palestinian voices, and even when we did, we didn’t really engage with them,” he said. He added that this imbalance was especially harmful because alums of the Israel trips were seen as “almost experts” on the Israel-Palestine conflict upon their return. Connoy attended a program titled “Religion in the Holy Land: Faith’s Role in Peace and Conflict,” which is not currently advertised on Munk One’s website. 

On the other hand, Stephanie Xu, who attended the Coexistence in the Middle East study abroad program in July 2017, told The Varsity that she didn’t find that the program prioritized Israeli perspectives over others. “I left with a lot more criticism towards the Israeli state and Israeli government,” she said. But while she values the program as a learning opportunity for students, she added, “If Palestinians — or U of T students who are Palestinians — think that this program is harmful, then by all means, I support that.” 

Xu also recalled being one of only two or three Munk One students on the trip, and said that most U of T-affiliated attendees were upper-year students in programs like peace, conflict, and justice or political science. For that reason, she believes the petition’s specific attack on Munk One is unfair. “It should be geared towards U of T as an institution,” she told The Varsity. 

Response from the Munk School

Cheryl Misak, interim director of the Munk School, responded to the petition via an email to The Varsity. “As you’ll know, the University of Toronto does not engage in academic boycotts,” Misak wrote. “This has been a consistent position for decades. The university’s belief is that universities can best protect and enhance human rights by steadfastly guarding and promoting academic freedom and freedom of expression.” 

In response to the petition’s allegations of Palestinian erasure, Misak wrote, “Students who go on [the Coexistence in the Middle East trip] do so specifically to learn about different narratives, histories, and experiences of the conflict that includes Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, the Druze people, and Israelis, among others. There are opportunities to meet, for example, with Palestinians from the West Bank, Lebanese refugees, Gaza residents, and members of grassroots organizations of bereaved Palestinians.”

An email from Misak to the petition creators, obtained by The Varsity, indicates that the Munk School does not intend to cancel its exchange programs with the Hebrew University.