The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors voted to rescind the Executive Committee’s signature from a letter condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians after they had signed it last month.
The letter, written by the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), called for U of T to discontinue the Munk One research trip to Israel and issue a statement “condemning the human rights violations in Palestine.” It also demands U of T to fix the hiring process that led, allegedly, to a job offer for Dr. Valentina Azarova being rescinded due to her writings on Israel and Palestine.
The letter has been signed by over 50 student groups at U of T, including other major student unions, such as the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.
However, criticism of the UTSU executives’ decision to sign the letter arose at the June 27 board meeting. Debate over the letter led to a July 4 emergency meeting, where the decision to sign the letter was ultimately reversed by a vote of the Board of Directors.
Discussion at June 27 meeting
The UTSU Executive Committee initially voted to sign the letter during a meeting of the Executive Committee on June 20. According to the minutes from the executives’ meeting, UTSU President Alexa Ballis indicated that the MSA reached out to the UTSU to ask them to sign the letter, which they chose to do.
Later, at the June board meeting, Innis College Director Elad Dekel proposed that the UTSU rescind the signature because he believes the letter is antisemitic, claiming specifically that it applies a double standard to Israel with regards to human rights and said that the terms employed, such as “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “apartheid” are not “factually accurate.” He argued that the letter harms Jewish and Israeli students and would make them feel unsafe on campus.
Faculty of Law Director Sterling Mancuso also spoke in favour of removing the signature, noting that the letter seemed intentionally provocative and divisive. A director and a non-voting member noted that it is important to support Palestinian and Muslim students as well.
University College Director Muskan Nagra spoke in favor of the MSA open letter, noting that it is important to be provocative when trying to spark action. “It’s our job to represent the students and if a student union is requesting we support them, it’s our job to look into it. I think it’s clear that there’s a human rights violation going on, and that’s what this letter is about,” said Nagra.
During the meeting, Ballis emphasized that the UTSU did not have long to sign the statement, so they had to make a quick decision.
“The executive signed on to it because we thought we were making the right decision to represent all of our students, especially with some of the feedback we received from our letters and given what’s been said by Human Rights Watch [and the] United Nations,” said Ballis at the meeting.
Decision at emergency meeting
According to UTSU Vice-President Operations Fiona Reuter, the board was able to essentially “re-vote” on the motion to sign the letter, because the vote was externalized by Dekel at the June 27 meeting and voted on at the emergency meeting on July 4.
Reuter wrote in an email to The Varsity that the emergency meeting took two and half hours in total, with the board eventually voting to remove the UTSU Executive Committee’s signature from the letter.
In an email to The Varsity, Dekel expressed relief that the motion rescinding the signature passed, writing that the UTSU has a responsibility to make sure all students feel safe on campus. “Signing this letter would have been a neglect of that duty,” wrote Dekel.
According to MSA President Fatima Mohammed, the UTSU has not yet reached out to the MSA to remove their signature from the letter.
The Varsity has reached out to the UTSU for comment.
Editor’s note (July 10): This article has been updated to include comment from the MSA and to correct the number of signatories on the MSA letter.