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Op-ed: In line with anti-discrimination commitments, U of T must not stay silent on Palestinian suffering

Students are calling upon the university, student unions for solidarity
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SHERENE ALMJAWER/THE VARSITY
SHERENE ALMJAWER/THE VARSITY

Palestine may no longer be trending, but students are still ashamed of the U of T administration’s silence on the ongoing Israeli apartheid, as identified by recent Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem reports. Over the past few weeks, news of the expulsion of Palestinians from their houses in Sheikh Jarrah to expand Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem sparked a wave of solidarity and calls to action from people around the world. Many have gathered to peacefully protest Israel’s human rights abuses and the removal of Palestinians from their own internationally recognized lands

This global outrage is mirrored on our campus, and students have made it abundantly clear that ethnic cleansing — the mass expulsion of members from a specific ethnic or religious group in a society — is of grave concern. Over a dozen student groups and course unions have issued statements of solidarity. Among countless calls for action, one common demand has been echoed constantly: the university must issue a statement of solidarity, recognizing the state-sanctioned violence against Palestinians and the ongoing expansion of unlawful Israeli settlements. 

But this demand has been met with silence. In this time of immense grief, anger, and pain, our administration has let this echoed cry for support fall flat.

Why are students demanding a statement? The U of T administration does not exist in a vacuum, and this silence is embedded in a web of media censure that actively suppresses the voices of Palestinians. On May 15, Israeli forces bombed media towers that included the offices of Al Jazeera Media Network and The Associated Press in an intentional erasure of coverage and accountability. In the past two months alone, hundreds have been killed, and despite a ceasefire, neighborhoods like Silwan and Jaffa are still under threat of eviction. If this is the first time you’re hearing these names, it’s because hardly any mainstream media agency is addressing them. 

Why is the silence of U of T President Meric Gertler and U of T itself so problematic? Simply put, representation matters. This university has established a pattern of demonstrating allyship with marginalized groups, and we have seen statements rightfully condemning many forms of discrimination, recently anti-Black, anti-Asian, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ+ hate. 

Although these statements are seldom followed by meaningful action, they have addressed local and global tragedies and social movements, and are the first steps toward inclusion. As students, we expected at least the empty promises of another performative statement, but it seems the suffering of Palestinians did not deserve even that. 

As students, staff, and faculty experience pain over the ongoing human rights abuses in Palestine, we need support, and U of T’s silence has failed us. This world-renowned institution is choosing to side with the oppressor, enabling the erasure of thousands of people and dismissing their lives as worthless.

Gertler has addressed Islamophobia when Muslims have been persecuted in the past, and U of T released a statement on recent violence against Muslims in Canada. However, as Muslims and other allies spent the past month explicitly saying that violence in Palestine has been impacting our mental well-being, U of T has stayed silent on the topic. We must recognize the impact of performative activism and biased reporting, which has historically damaged our communities and nurtured biases, microaggressions, and ignorance. This refusal to address Palestine is more than a missing statement; it feeds into a cycle of Muslim lives being addressed only when convenient.

When the institution failed us, we turned to our fellow students in hopes that the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) would offer the support that the university denied us. The UTSU’s statements have historically been issued to show solidarity and educate the public on ongoing issues. 

However, the UTSU’s original statement, published on June 7 and later deleted, did neither. The vague and hopelessly neutral statement was released weeks after the Canadian Association of University Teachers imposed their censure on U of T and focused almost entirely on demanding the rehiring of Dr. Valentina Azarova, out of touch given the university’s decision to resume the hiring process. A statement in solidarity on an issue about one month late is rather pointless, but the timing could have been excused if it allowed for something well-researched and substantial. 

In the hours following the release of the statement, students flooded the comment section expressing disappointment and outrage. The UTSU then promptly responded with a revised version, which — while demonstrating some understanding of allyship — still misses the mark by burying an extremely sensitive issue within a statement focused on the censure. We appreciate the effort, but being an ally is not meant to be an easy task; it entails recognizing your privilege and putting yourself in precarious positions. Perhaps we’re asking for too much, but one would think an apartheid warrants a dedicated statement. 

The UTSU had over a dozen examples of decisive statements from groups like the Association of Palestinian Students, Muslim Students’ Association, and Arts and Science Students’ Union. There was little that could have been done to further hold the UTSU’s hand through this process. Despite this, in the caption that accompanies the revised statement, the UTSU claims that its delay was due to the “lack of clear calls to action and relevant facts.” Posting a revised statement was the UTSU’s chance to rectify a mistake, but the union chose to shift the blame and bury the real issue instead. They were so close. 

U of T’s inaction is a reminder that our privilege allows us to advocate on behalf of those whose voices are silenced. However, when we don’t use our voices to speak up against ethnic cleansing, we are abusing that privilege and enabling the erasure of Palestinian voices and culture. 

As a bare minimum, we call on the university to reconsider its stance and issue a statement in solidarity, condemning the violence against Palestinians. We need to understand that this is not a trend; it’s a call to stand for human rights when thousands of civilians have been killed and millions displaced. It’s not too late to get on the right side of history. Educate yourselves and advocate, because change is long overdue. 

This is a scary time. But when silence is your response to injustice, stop and check your privilege. When two visibly Muslim women who have the right to be afraid call you out for it, think twice. As you sit in your ivory tower and continue to be silent, feel the shame. Shame on those who stay quiet when their voices are needed the most.

Fatima Zahra Mohammed is a fourth-year human geography and environmental studies student at Victoria College. She is the president of the Muslim Students’ Association and a freshwater policy analyst for Environment Canada. Basmah Ramadan is a fourth-year international relations student at University College. She is the vice-president external of the Muslim Students’ Association, an executive member of the Arts and Science Students’ Union, and a student co-chair on the Anti-Islamophobia Community Working Group. She served as a University College director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union in the 2019–2020 and 2020–2021 academic years.