Content warning: This article discusses specific antisemitic stereotypes and incidents of harassment.
U of T’s Anti-Semitism Working Group (ASWG) has released a report describing a pattern of antisemitism at the university and laying out guidelines to curtailing discrimination. In an official statement, the U of T administration accepted all of the report’s recommendations, praising the ASWG for having made a valuable contribution on behalf of the Jewish community.
However, some Jewish community members assert that the report doesn’t go far enough, especially considering the increase in international antisemitism exemplified by the recent hostage situation in a Texas synagogue, which is being treated as a terrorist attack and hate crime by the FBI.
The ASWG is one of a number of task forces established at U of T to direct the university’s approach to racism and discrimination. To draft its report, the group coordinated a consultation process that included hosting focus groups; surveying students, faculty, and community members; conducting interviews; and reading hundreds of emails.
“We were… surprised by the extent to which [antisemitic incidents] continue to take place,” wrote ASWG Chair Arthur Ripstein, in an email to The Varsity.
The report classified antisemitism at U of T into two categories. The first is racial antisemitism and occurs when people assume that Jewish people share certain characteristics, such as wealth and dual loyalty — the idea that Jewish people have more loyalty to Israel than their own country.
“Many survey respondents and focus group participants reported harassment based on such representations, ranging from having coins thrown at them to being physically assaulted,” stated the report. “It also occasionally manifests crude biological images: several focus group participants reported being asked whether Jews had horns.”
The report noted that racial antisemitism also crops up in debates about Israel and Palestine. “In the context of those debates, troubling stereotypes about Jews frequently appear, including conspiracy theories about how Jews control the world, claims that Jews are corrupt or devious, as well as versions of blood libels that originated in Europe in the Middle Ages,” wrote Ripstein.
Ripstein added that Jewish people are sometimes excluded from spaces and activities, and are told that their participation is conditional on their political position regarding Israel. The report notes that holding a community collectively responsible for alleged acts of certain individuals is unacceptable at the university.
The second form of antisemitism manifests itself as infringements on the right of Jewish people to practice their religion. The report states that survey respondents and focus group participants were refused accommodations, told that they were only entitled to accommodations if they had been previously granted them, told that they needed to establish a level of religious observance, or “even chastised for being backwards for being religiously observant.”
Finally, the report found a lack of action on the part of the university. “We… heard more often than we had expected that the University’s equity processes and offices had not been sufficiently responsive to complaints,” Ripstein wrote.
In an effort to address both forms of antisemitism, the ASWG called on the university to take a number of steps, such as better equipping the equity office, training its staff, offering kosher food options across all three campuses, and ensuring that “individual members of the University not be required to take on particular political positions.”
The report elaborates that the university should affirm its commitment to academic freedom and that students should not be barred from participating in campus life due to their political opinions. Moreover, it states that students should be able to hold controversial events without fear of harassment.
Other recommendations included that the university approach antisemitism under the broader framework of its antiracism and equity efforts, that it avoid scheduling mandatory events on significant Jewish holidays, and that it find a better way of addressing forms of harassment such as bullying and microagressions.
Jewish community members had mixed reactions toward the report. When asked in an interview with The Varsity about what parts of the report disappointed her, Julia Gauze, co-president of the Jewish Law Students Association, replied that most of it did.
“The report spent a ton of time talking about what it wouldn’t do, almost as much as it did talking about what it would do,” said Gauze. “Who are they trying to appease there?”
One of the most controversial portions of the report is the ASWG’s recommendation that the university not adopt any specific definition of antisemitism. This decision was made over the objection of some community members.
While explaining its decision, the ASWG noted that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition, which was repeatedly mentioned in consultations, was created to track antisemitism, not to restrict speech. The report also mentions that other diversity task forces have not created or implemented such definitions.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism is controversial among Jewish academics. Some see it as necessary, but others view the definition as hindering debates about Israel and Palestine, failing to acknowledge the diversity of Jewish thought, and perpetuating stereotypes about Jewish people.
Gauze argued that, by failing to include a definition, the ASWG is “basically shooting themselves in [the foot].”
Rabbi Ariella Rosen, the senior director for Hillel UofT, echoed this concern. “The majority of mainstream Jewish community institutions recognize the IHRA definition of antisemitism as being the most comprehensive and appropriate, and Hillel was disappointed to see that the working group did not take up that recommendation,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity.
Rosen wrote, “The lack of a definition of antisemitism makes it very easy to explain away or not take seriously reports of antisemitism, which is unfortunately a familiar experience for many Jews.”
Another complaint against the report was its use of statements that Gauze described as “vague.” “I would say that the report is imprecise and I think a lot of that is fueled by the reports’ absolute hesitancy to identify any specific forms [of antisemitism].”
Gauze added that when the report did mention specific examples, they weren’t pertinent, such as its definition of the Rothschild trope — the trope that Jewish people use money to assert control over world affairs. She found that the university’s definition didn’t address the forms of antisemitism that actually take place on campus. “I can tell you that no one on campus has really called me a Rothschild, but they played on some of the same tropes,” she said.
Gauze also voiced concerns about the report “closing the door on an issue” and being interpreted as the answer to antisemitism.
However, Gauze and Rosen remain hopeful. Despite many misgivings, Gauze believes that the report contains some good points. “They talked about how people can’t be banned from participating in things or holding events based on viewpoints,” she said. “So I thought that that was a very good point.”
Rosen also identified some good points made by the ASWG, saying, “The recognition that antisemitism functions as a form of racism is deeply meaningful.” Moreover, she said that the recommendation that student organizations should be able to hold events and access resources regardless of political position is “essential to not further alienating many Jewish students.”
She also praised the commitment to making kosher food available on all campuses and wrote that it was a crucial way to make Jewish students “feel welcome and supported.”
“Like any form of racism or discrimination, many antisemitic attitudes and assumptions are deeply intrenched in our society, and undoing that learning takes a lot of work,” Rosen wrote. “I am hopeful, even as I know that change takes time.”