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Jewish faculty sign letter expressing concerns about antisemitism in medical faculty

Letter released in response to accusations of anti-Palestinian racism in Faculty of Medicine
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The letter was signed by over 300 Jewish faculty members at the university. GRACE XU/THE VARSITY
The letter was signed by over 300 Jewish faculty members at the university. GRACE XU/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses antisemitism.

On March 7, Doctors Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (DARA), a Toronto-based grassroots organization, released an open letter to Acting Dean Patricia Houston of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine that was signed by over 300 Jewish faculty members at the university. The letter condemns an earlier letter sent by 45 U of T faculty members, which was originally meant to be confidential. The earlier letter was also addressed to Houston, and was written in response to the Faculty’s choice of a speaker and sponsor for a January 26 event marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The DARA’s letter describes the earlier leaked letter as a conduit for “falsehoods, twisted logic and antisemitic rhetoric.” However, this characterization attracted criticism from some signatories of the original letter, who believe the DARA is attempting to intimidate faculty members concerned about Palestinian rights.

In an email to The Varsity, Houston reiterated the Faculty’s commitment to combating all types of discrimination and defended its choice to host the January 26 talk. “We do not – and will not – censor or set preconditions upon what invited speakers may or may not say,” she wrote. 

Houston also mentioned steps that the Faculty has taken to “facilitate respectful dialogue,” such as appointing senior advisors on antisemitism and Islamaphobia. 

“[Physicians] must be knowledgeable about our world and feel empowered to speak out ­– sometimes passionately – to identify injustices,” Dr. Houston wrote. “However, we must also be respectful, thoughtful, and show concern for the impact our words may have on others.” 

First confidential letter in response to event

The original letter — the letter that was criticized by the DARA — was written in response to an event meant to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, organized by the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity. The event featured McGill Emeritus Professor Irwin Cotler, a former MP and attorney general of Canada, who gave a lecture on contemporary antisemitism. 

Though the original letter acknowledged the importance of Holocaust remembrance events, its signatories claimed that the Faculty’s event “[reinforced] anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing and erasure of Palestinian voices.” 

The letter pointed to Cotler’s endorsement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as evidence of this pattern. The IHRA definition is controversial among academics — some believe the definition is necessary, while others believe the definition is used to categorize criticism of Israel as antisemitic. U of T’s Anti-Semitism Working Group (ASWG) recently chose not to adopt this definition — or any definition — of antisemitism. The signatories also argued that the event “repeatedly labeled legitimate criticism of Israel as examples of antisemitism.”

Moreover, the signatories took issue with the Faculty’s decision to let the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) sponsor the event. The FSWC is a nonprofit human rights organization focused on countering racism and antisemitism. The faculty members took issue with the organization in part because, in a media release, it had discussed an anonymous open letter that called for the dismissal of Dr. Ritika Goel — the Faculty of Medicine’s social justice, anti-oppression and advocacy theme lead for the doctor of medicine and postgraduate training programs — because of her long-time support of Palestine. The FSWC demanded that U of T launch an investigation about allegations of antisemitism at the faculty. The allegations of antisemitism included some against Goel.

Consequently, the signatories alleged that the FSWC has “actively targeted colleagues of colour,” and stated that allowing the centre to sponsor an event “sent a chilling message to other faculty and students.”

The letter concluded with a call for greater protections for students’ freedom of speech. “We are aware of students and faculty… who have been receiving ‘calls into the office’ to discuss… student complaints relating to their personal social media presence,” the signatories wrote. They added that the source of those complaints was usually demonstrations of support for Palestinian human rights and demanded that the Faculty protect its community members’ right “[to] speak out against intimidation and harassment without fear of reprisal and defamation.”

Open letter from the DARA

After a faculty member leaked the original letter to the DARA, the organization released its own letter detailing Jewish faculty members’ apprehension in the face of escalating and openly expressed antisemitism experienced by Jewish students and faculty. 

“Like members of any ethnic group which has endured historical persecution, it was our duty to call out the antisemitism permeating the letter from the 45 faculty members and to drive it back in the closet where it should stay,” Philip Berger, a signatory of the DARA’s letter and a professor within the Faculty of Medicine, wrote in an email to The Varsity

The DARA’s letter objected to the original letter’s claim that Cotler’s lecture had undermined the ASWG’s work by endorsing the IHRA definition of antisemitism. It noted that although U of T accepted the working group’s report, the university “has not banned or prohibited the use, teaching, or discussion of the IHRA working definition.”

The DARA letter’s signatories also criticized the original letter’s use of “well-worn anti-Jewish contrivances,” like the reference to “special interest groups.” Moreover, it condemned the original letter for minimizing antisemitism perpetuated at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The writers of the original letter disagreed with Cotler’s portrayal of condemnations of Israel that happened at the conference as antisemitic. 

However, the DARA letter pointed out that multiple examples of antisemitism occured around discussions of Israel at the conference — including the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a baseless and notoriously harmful antisemitic text.

Finally, the open letter claims that non-Jewish signatories of the leaked letter are using the letter’s Jewish signatories as “moral cover.”

“They hide behind their Jewish colleagues to define for the Jewish community what is antisemitism,” Philip Berger elaborated. “For no other ethnic group would those outside the group dare to define what racism against their community means.”

Defence from leaked letter signatories

Some of the signatories of the original letter that condemned U of T’s event explained their reasons for signing the letter to The Varsity. “The [leaked] letter raised important issues regarding the culture [around] Palestine in the Faculty of Medicine,” said Mohammad Fadel, a law professor and signatory. 

Jewish signatories of the original letter also denied that the statement was antisemitic. Deborah Cowen, a geography & planning professor and a member of the Jewish Faculty Network, wrote that it’s important to remember that there is a diversity of Jewish opinions on campus. “Many Jewish faculty members signed the letter… out of deep concern for anti-Palestinian racism and the targeting of faculty within Medicine who stand up for Palestinian rights.”

Samantha Green, another Jewish signatory of the original letter, wrote that, while she condemns antisemitism and all other forms of racism, “false charges of antisemitism… deflect from legitimate criticisms of the State of Israel [and] hinder meaningful discussions on how to resist the rise of White supremacist, neo-Nazi, and truly antisemitic rhetoric and violence within our communities.”

Fadel added that he was disappointed at the way the open letter primarily targeted “racialized junior faculty, and almost exclusively women.”

“On the one hand, you have a group of people who are trying to address a serious problem in the culture of the Faculty of Medicine,” said Fadel. “And then you have another group of people who are defaming others. That’s the bottom line here.”

Community response to letters

The FSWC has also issued a statement in solidarity with the DARA letter’s signatories in which they described the leaked letter as yet another example of why the university should adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. 

“It is extremely bizarre and disturbing that some U of T faculty members have chosen to wrongfully attack a distinguished leader in the Jewish community who has dedicated his life to combatting antisemitism and other forms of hatred,” read a statement from Michael Levitt, the president and CEO of the FSWC. 

“Time and time again, it appears Jews are being told what is and isn’t antisemitism and what actions can and cannot be taken to combat this pervasive hatred,” Levitt added. 

Editor’s Note (March 14): This article has been updated to clarify that the FSWC did not call for Dr. Ritika Goel to be fired. Instead, the FSWC demanded an investigation into allegations of antisemitism at the faculty, which prominently featured allegations against Goel.