This December, a new paper published by physician Dr. Ayelet Kuper detailing her observations of antisemitism at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine sparked headlines across major news publications.
From the antiquated stereotyping of Jews as a special interest group to the implicit biases of non-Jewish Temerty community members who remain silent in the face of antisemitic microaggressions, Kuper’s report criticized the administration’s ongoing failure to respond to hateful rhetoric surrounding Jewish people.
Among several commentators were U of T President Meric Gertler, whose op-ed for The Globe and Mail underscored the responsibility universities possess in maintaining a safe space for all. Accordingly, Gertler’s article spotlighted U of T’s establishment of a specialized working group to recommend appropriate interventions for anti-Jewish sentiments on campus.
The working group’s resolutions notably choose not to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has repeatedly come under fire by scholars for insulating the Israeli government against international criticism. In his op-ed, Gertler claimed the definition to be “both insufficiently responsive to many of the most troubling instances of antisemitism in the university context and in tension with the [university’s mandate to protect] freedom of expression and academic freedom [as] individual rights.”
This might appear as a controversial decision to many, particularly given that the IHRA’s definition has been adopted at multiple federal and provincial levels alike — including by the government of Ontario. But U of T’s strong stance may very well be a step in the right direction for the well-being and equitable treatment of its Jewish students, who have been reported to often be unjustly expected to answer for the actions of the Israeli state in university settings.
Indeed, it is high time that universities recognize that conflating antisemitism with any meaningful critique of the Israeli government only serves to erode concrete efforts to address the roots of racist incidents experienced by Jewish students and their communities. The solution to preventing the growth of antisemitism at U of T does not lie in censoring Israel’s critics but in pushing back against the neo-Nazi ideologies that have over time come to dominate our understandings and stereotypes of Jewish culture.
Comments referring to “powerful Jews” or the supposed lack of credibility of Jewish claims to victimhood, which Kuper reports are widely prevalent at U of T, perhaps speak more to the institutional embeddedness of the historical stereotypical idea of the conniving, power-hungry Jew who is perpetually plotting a takeover of the world order. Yet, privileged white men continue to sit atop this order, and it is they who stand to gain the most by detracting from the conversation about antisemitism to make it about Israel and Israel alone.
The truth is that antisemitism is, and always has been, an outcome and indication of the broader unchecked power of white supremacy and white nationalist racial discourse. That Toronto has seen a slew of hate-motivated incidents perpetrated by white men this year, in addition to an uptick in the use of white supremacist Nazi symbols in schools, attests to this.
U of T’s decision not to use the IHRA’s working definition signals a recognition of the growing infiltration of radical white nationalist ideology into the sphere of everyday life, and the effects it has in terms of creating deep intercommunity divisions.
For universities and governments to move away from distilling the issue, or pinning it broadly on anti-Israel movements, would mean that they would have to acknowledge the extent to which hegemonic whiteness controls our institutions. It further means that said institutions would have to pledge to eradicate the antisemitism its Jewish members face in more complex, multi-level, and targeted manners.
In this regard, I am hopeful that U of T’s deviation is the first step of many in its imagining of creative and constructive solutions to anti-Jewish hatred on campus while still encouraging international political literacy among its community members.
It is important to note that we cannot in turn deny the feelings of Jewish students who have witnessed the pro-Palestinian cause be weaponized on campus to espouse antisemitic rhetoric. It is just as much U of T’s duty to swiftly denounce any statement that seeks to unfairly generalize and incriminate the wider Jewish community.
However, to mute political analyses and condemnation of a state whose actions have irreversibly altered the lives, histories, and freedoms of Arab communities would only contribute to what Palestinian students are calling a growing culture of silence at U of T that is failing to take a stand against the repression they face at home.
To engage in these discourses that hold the Israeli government accountable for its racial regime is not so dissimilar from criticizing Canada’s genocidal and anti-Indigenous foundational structure — a practice that universities are increasingly integrating into their curricula. Hence, there is just as much of a conversation to be had about settler colonialism as there is about antisemitism, but to make the former an issue that strictly concerns Jewish people would only serve to exacerbate the latter.
U of T must be fiercely committed to expunging all hints of antisemitic discrimination from its classrooms, hallways, and offices. But it must also make space for its Palestinian students to publicly narrate their lived experiences and traumas. To deny either of these groups of their dignity would be deleterious for both and a disservice to the democratic principles upon which our universities should operate. In the fight against antisemitism, U of T ultimately owes it to its community to not have the entirety of Jewish identity be reduced to a monolith, nor have Jewish culture and heritage rendered synonymous with state violence.
Noshin Talukdar is a fourth-year student at Victoria College. She is the equity columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.