On July 9, students and other protestors gathered in front of Sidney Smith Hall and marched to the Faculty of Law building in support of academic freedom on Palestinian issues. The protest was directly fueled by the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) censure of the university over a hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP).

The event — planned by UTM’s Association of Palestinian Students (APS) and supported by Censure U of T, The Palestine Forum, and Amnesty International UTSC — highlighted the connections between issues happening internationally and U of T students’ university education. The event was also advertised by a number of campus student unions, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union, Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.

Amidst calls that the university keep its “hands off [our] education,” speakers such as former IHRP director Samer Muscati, U of T law professor Mohammad Fadel, and APS President Nahil Al Zuhaika spoke on a range of topics, from the IHRP scandal to the importance of speaking up on global issues. 

Direct action

Students at the protest described eagerness about being able to speak up on Palestinian issues despite the conflict itself being so far away. For many, it was a way to stand in solidarity with people who live in another continent and to address concerns that are closer to home.

“I really think that being here… [is] really important because it’s basic human rights,” said Zaynab Jivraj, a third-year student. “This is what we can do about it.”

When asked why he attended the protest, third-year student Abyaaz Khan responded that “in a situation like this, we need meaningful action.” Tajrian Islam, a second-year student, added that what happened to Dr. Azarova was “sheer injustice” and that student voices needed to be heard. 

Nahil Al Zuhaika, the protest organizer and a Palestinian student, described feeling elated at being able to do something about what was going on, both at the university and in Israel and Palestine. In an interview with The Varsity, she explained that throughout her life, she had been told not to talk about Israel and Palestine out of fear of losing certain opportunities.

“I just one day woke up and realized, ‘Why don’t I get to be myself? Why don’t I get to say I’m Palestinian?’” Al Zuhaika said. “That’s not fair — that others get to be themselves and I don’t.”

“Hands off our education”

Al Zuhaika noted that this protest, along with the IHRP scandal, has contributed to a political awakening about the realities of academic freedom for those who write about Palestine. After being told her entire life that she could be fired for having an opinion on Israel and Palestine, it was a shock to have it actually happen to someone like Azarova. 

“I used to also be very detached,” Al Zuhaika noted. “[The administration was] so separate from my life at university… When [the IHRP scandal] happened, I was like ‘okay, maybe I should start caring more about who’s in charge because clearly… it’s affecting me.’”

Al Zuhaika expressed anger at how the IHRP scandal represented U of T’s ability to control what students learn and what conversations it considered appropriate to have. She stated that she firmly believes the university should cater to its students rather than its donors, and that the controversy has motivated her to become more involved in university affairs, whether that involvement be through student elections or rallies. 

Jivraj reinforced these points, explaining that it is disappointing when professors can’t lead appropriate conversations about Israel and Palestine. Despite also being told while growing up to avoid speaking on Palestinian issues, Jivraj said that it is her “blessing” to be able to do so now.