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U of T hasn’t been welcoming to Palestinian community members — a new initiative hopes to change that

The perpsectives of Palestinian alumni show that U of T has a long history of silence
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Content warning: This article discusses instances of anti-Palestinian harassment.

There is no shortage of Palestinian existence at the University of Toronto. Whether through student or club advocacy, conversations about Palestine have persevered for years in student communities. But Palestinians and those interested in Palestine have felt a blatant lack of institutional support at the university. 

We are writing this open letter in response to an editorial by The Varsity that called upon U of T to affirm a commitment to free speech for Palestinian community members. We also echo a call by a fellow student, who argued that “We need to be able to talk about Palestine” without fear or apprehension and under the protection of the educational institution at which we study. 

We, student researchers for the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS), believe discourse about Palestine is essential to a true survey of colonial and anti-colonial history. “Hearing Palestine,” a student and faculty initiative founded in fall of 2020 under the auspices of the IIS, aims to make space for that kind of discourse on campus.

Hearing Palestine 

Hearing Palestine is a talk series that invites U of T alumni of Palestinian backgrounds to speak about their experiences on campus and in their careers. Two of the speakers who’ve spoken so far have been Diana Buttu, who was a legal advisor for the Palestine Liberation Organization from 2000–2005, and Dr. Abdel Razzaq Takriti, the University of Houston’s inaugural Arab American educational foundation chair in modern Arab history. 

Their reflections, which we’ve included in our letter, underscore that U of T has a long history of anti-Palestinian racism. While this atmosphere has pushed students to work together toward liberation, in Takriti’s words, their time at U of T remained a time of hostile “structural constraints and pressures.”

“There were only a handful of classrooms where we could talk and feel safe,” Takriti said. As Buttu put it, students “effectively came out very bruised.” 

U of T alum Diana Buttu is a Palestinian-Canadian human rights lawyer and advocate. PHOTO COURTESY OF DIANA BUTTU

Diana Buttu’s story, as told on “Hearing Palestine” 

In the late 1980s, Diana Buttu began her undergraduate studies in the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies and the Department of Economics at the University of Toronto. At that time, Palestinians were rising up against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, in what would be called the first intifada (1987-1993). 

With the help of the late Professor James Graff (1937-2005), Buttu was introduced to a cohort of students of Palestinian backgrounds. The group was not large, consisting of around six or seven students. Still, they decided to speak against the institutional erasure of Palestinians on campus. They also advocated for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

As they did this advocacy work, they faced harassment and intimidation by active Israeli Zionist groups on campus. During a student club fair, their group put out tables in Sidney Smith Hall. Buttu recalls that Zionist students verbally attacked them, even calling the university police on them. 

But the group stood their ground and, against all odds, they succeeded in establishing the Middle East Forum and worked on a student publication called al-Mizan, which is Arabic for “balance.” They also ran events, including two where they hosted renowned American-Jewish anti-Zionist scholar Norman Finkelstein, and one with Hanan Ashrawi. 

In 1995, Diana Buttu returned to U of T as a graduate student in the Faculty of Law. By then, the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 had been signed, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank began expanding exponentially. The accords were meant to be part of a peace process, but freedom of expression on the subject of Palestine became even more restricted. 

During that time, Buttu felt that Zionism was becoming normalized on campus. She recounted that Israeli judges who supported the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories and other anti-Palestinian policies were invited to speak on campus.

Buttu recalled that some faculty members expended much effort to include Israel in course offerings and syllabi. She does not remember Palestine being treated the same way. 

After graduating from U of T Law, Buttu became a Palestinian-Canadian intellectual and lawyer who specializes in international law and international human rights law. She has advocated for Palestinian human rights in a multitude of forms, from writing op-eds for major newspapers to hosting a podcast

During her time at U of T, she endured non-supportive faculty, daily aggressions, and systemic impediments. However, given her accomplishments, her story is also one of defiance and a commitment to social justice and change. 

Listening to Diana Buttu tell her story in 2021 showed us how — both then and now — simple student tasks like juggling coursework and studying for exams are made so much more difficult when you are also taking up the mantle of defending and humanizing yourself.

Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s story

By the time Abdel Razzaq Takriti began his undergraduate studies at U of T in 1999, the conversations that were initiated about Palestine during the first intifada had succumbed to silence once more. His time at U of T was riddled with daily experiences of harassment. During his “Hearing Palestine” talk on March 4, 2021, he described in great detail what life was like for him as a Palestinian U of T student. 

He told one story about how he joined The Varsity, only to be assigned coverage of a Hebrew University and U of T “friendship event” at a hotel. An Israeli minister was in attendance. In his reporting, he mentioned that there was no Palestinian presence at the event, but he recalled the final article having a “celebratory” tone. It had been rewritten and published under his name without his consent. His attempts at shedding light on valid flaws were discredited as if to maintain a certain narrative.

“Of course, afterwards, I resigned from The Varsity,” Takriti said. That was just one instance that made him feel unwelcome at U of T— harassment followed him in his dormitories, at extracurricular activities, and in classrooms.

When people asked where he was from and he said that he was Palestinian, that was seen as a political statement. Because of that politicization, many other Palestinian students would publicly identify with where they grew up — Jordan, Lebanon, or Dubai, for example — instead of saying that they were Palestinian. 

Still, Takriti and other engaged students searched for university groups through which they could advocate. But the Arab Student Association (ASA) and the Muslim Student Association (MSA) were only involved in cultural, social, and religious activities. 

While recounting that, Takriti emphasized that the apolitical nature of these associations should not be easily condemned, because it was a consequence of the pressures that the groups’ student leaders experienced. For example, the ASA faced attacks similar to the harassment that Buttu experienced during the annual Arab Week when they included mentions of Palestine during tabling at Sidney Smith Hall.

But in the context of the second intifada in 2000–2005, 9/11, and the US invasion of Iraq, Takriti recalled that he joined a group of U of T students that came together to push back against an upsurge of Islamophobia. Those students — mostly undergraduates — included Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and students from Africa and Asia, as well as allies from Jewish communities.

This group sought to form a vibrant alternative intellectual and social space and embarked on wide-ranging social justice campaigns. They participated in hosting the al-Awda conference, a huge international event on Palestinians’ right to return to Palestine, and many of them became active in the Arab Students Collective (ASC). 

The ASC sponsored the first Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), which spread across the globe, becoming one of the largest worldwide solidarity events with Palestine. 

CAUT censure is a continuation of U of T’s history

In September 2020, U of T allegedly rescinded an offer of employment to Dr. Valentina Azarova at the Law Faculty’s International Human Rights Program. Against all protocols, her name had been leaked, and ended up at a Zionist advocacy organisation, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). A financial donor, Justice David E. Spiro of the Tax Court of Canada, allegedly put pressure on the university’s administration to block her hiring.

The university administration commissioned Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell to investigate this case. Following that investigation, Cromwell published a report — however, Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Executive Director David Robinson stated to The Varsity that CAUT council members felt that the report’s mandate was too confined. Although the report found conflicting reports of what happened, Cromwell did not have the authority to assess the “credibility or plausibility” of those reports. 

The donor, Spiro, was also a former member of the CIJA board of directors, and Justice Thomas Cromwell was a keynote speaker for their annual legal conference while he was conducting the investigation. The connection between the donor, the investigator, and the organization involved went largely unnoticed. 

Reflecting on U of T’s past, it’s clear that none of these decisions emerged in a vacuum. The oral histories of Diana Buttu and Dr. Takriti give substance to the feelings of anti-Palestinian hostility that we believe many individuals, students, and scholars have experienced for decades. 

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Council, the main body which protects the rights of academic staff in Canada, has ruled against the Cromwell report. Following this series of events, CAUT has decided to censure the university until the right course of action is taken, causing events and educational opportunities at the university to come to a standstill. 

Nevertheless, the university has decided to resume its search for a new director of the IHRP, despite the way educational opportunities are dwindling for its own students. It opposes the CAUT censure, and does not believe the Azarova case falls under the council’s jurisdiction because the position was administrative, not academic.

The CAUT censure has gained widespread support. Despite this, we believe that the way speech about Palestine has been treated as an exception to free speech worldwide has been insufficiently integrated into the conversation. Advocating for academic freedom remains tokenistic if the reality of extensive policing of Palestine on the ground is not challenged. 

It’s true that students like Diana Buttu and Abdel Razzaq Takriti have, at times, succeeded in establishing student clubs and publications that created a space for Palestine. It’s also true that student organisations, such as the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) BDS Movement, have stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people. 

However, even our attempts at opening a space for discussion have been publicly undermined and defamed by Zionist organisations. In an attempt to highlight aspects of Palestinian culture, we included Ghassan Kanafani, an influential Palestinian advocate and writer, on our “Hearing Palestine” posters. For that, we were met with polarizing labels of terrorism and antisemitism.

The pervasive erasure of Palestinians, the systemic silencing of student-led organisations, and the quotidian and explicit anti-Palestinian discrimination have subjected individual students to such pressure that the permanence of any project has been impossible. Coupled with the university’s lack of institutional and faculty support, U of T  has time and time again reverted to the unsupportive empty space described by our Palestinian-Canadian alumni and the hostile atmosphere we all know. 

The importance of listening and free speech 

U of T should be a safe space for Palestinian students to be unapologetically Palestinian. Students, staff, and faculty — especially untenured faculty — should be able to openly speak against countries that benefit from settler colonialism without fear of retribution. We should be able to struggle against an occupying state, and we should be able to hold our administration accountable for what we feel amounts to anti-Palestinian bias. 

To begin with, the administration should balance the resources it allocates to the study of Palestine, which are few compared to the study of Israel. Out of the 700 programs that U of T’s three campuses offer to undergraduate students, there is only one class being taught on Palestinian history: HIS370 — Modern Palestine. In our experience, course syllabi have remained largely Eurocentric despite the diversity of the student body.

The administration should also break up its normalised relations with Israel by limiting the extensive fellowships and exchange programs it currently has with Israeli universities. This would help sever the intimate relationship between settler colonialism and the production of knowledge rooted in silencing the past and present. 

Finally, we call on the administration to stop donor pressure on the hiring of faculty and its influence on the unequal distribution of donor funds for different programs and syllabi.

Above all, we need to listen to Palestinian community members’ stories. Only then can we pinpoint what is to be rectified. For example, from the narratives of Diana Buttu and Dr. Abdel Razzaq Takriti, we have come to understand how faculty support can affect and enable student-led activism. 

So “Hearing Palestine” responds to longstanding calls to improve the university experience for Palestinians and those interested in the history of Palestine. Following the Azarova case, the bombardments of Gaza, and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from entire neighborhoods in Jerusalem and elsewhere, we hope, as students, to transform this project into a centre for the critical study of Palestine. 

Given the lack of institutional support for Palestinians and Palestine throughout U of T’s history, the IIS’s involvement with “Hearing Palestine” is a promising guarantor for the permanence and evolution of this project. We hope that, over time, “Hearing Palestine” will augment the existence of Palestine in academic and scholarly discourse at U of T.

We call on the university to recognize the reality we present to them by meeting us in the middle and investing in a more permanent commitment to Palestine on campus.

Yasmeen Atassi, Racha Ghanem, and Salwa Iqbal are affiliated with the Institute of Islamic Studies.

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