Content warning: In addition to discussions of antisemitism, this article also mentions anti-Palestinian violence.
On December 5, 2022, Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s (TFOM) Dr. Ayelet Kuper published a paper describing antisemitism she experienced during her year as the faculty’s senior advisor on antisemitism. Kuper is an associate professor at TFOM, where she recently served as Senior Advisor on Antisemitism for a year.
During her term as a senior advisor, which lasted from June 2021 to June 2022, Kuper heard colleagues perpetuate stereotypes about Jewish people, deny the existence of antisemitism, and refuse to accommodate Jewish students.
In response to Kuper’s paper and other recent instances of antisemitism, multiple groups highlighted the need to address antisemitism at the university and support Jewish students.
Kuper, who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, documented numerous instances of antisemitism that she experienced at TFOM. Kuper was told “that Jews lie to control the university or the faculty or the world, to oppress or hurt others, and/or for other forms of gain,” referencing common stereotypes about Jewish people.
Others at the faculty told her that antisemitism can’t exist because everything that Jewish people say is a lie, “including any claims to have experienced discrimination.” Kuper also highlighted different student groups’ refusal to provide kosher food at events.
Some of the stereotypes Kuper documented pertained to the pandemic. Kuper wrote that she’d witnessed discussions blaming Jewish people for “concocting or causing” COVID-19 and perpetuating the belief that Jewish people mandated vaccines for their financial gain.
Kuper also heard dozens of times that TFOM’s “antisemitism problem” stemmed from the 2021 war in Gaza, blaming antisemitism on the Israeli government’s policy. Kuper overheard her colleagues complain about “those Jews who think their Holocaust means they know something about oppression.”
According to Kuper, some people associated with TFOM use the term ‘Zionism’ incorrectly and attempt to improperly redefine the term. Kuper defined Zionism as “the belief that Jews have the right to national self-determination,” adding that Israel “should be allowed to continue to exist as a country.” The term ‘anti-Zionism’ refers to the movement opposing Zionism and contesting Jewish people’s right to treat the State of Israel as their homeland.
Kuper’s article mentioned a January 2022 incident that she termed “the most well-publicized episode of antisemitism at TFOM this year.” Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian federal justice minister and attorney general, and professor emeritus of Law at McGill, presented a talk on antisemitism at TFOM for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In response to the talk, 45 U of T faculty members sent a confidential letter to TFOM’s Acting Dean Patricia Houston. The letter criticized the event for favouring the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the university’s Antisemitism Working Group (AWG) had decided not to adopt a month prior.
The IHRA defines antisemitism as “hatred toward Jews,” which is “directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The confidential letter also stated that the talk reinforced anti-Palestinian racism by labelling “legitimate criticism of Israel as examples of antisemitism.”
Responding to the confidential letter, Doctors Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (DARA), a Toronto-based grassroots organization, released an open letter addressed to Houston, framing the confidential letter as antisemitic for its use of “well-worn anti-Jewish contrivances.” Over 300 Jewish faculty members at the university signed the DARA letter.
“There are, of course, those who speak up for Palestinians (for example) who do so without being antisemitic,” Kuper clarified in her paper.
However, Kuper noted that, when other TFOM members insisted that Zionism implies “hating all Muslims” or “wanting to murder all Palestinians,” they cast Jewish Zionists through a skewed lens.
History of antisemitism at U of T
In October 2022, TFOM Dean Trevor Young apologized for the faculty’s restrictive quota system, which limited the numbers of Jewish MD students accepted to TFOM and physicians hired at partner hospitals for decades before and after World War II.
That same month, Hillel UofT, the centre for Jewish life at the university, received news that someone had drawn a swastika in front of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. In an Instagram post discussing the incident, Hillel UofT wrote that the defacement of a U of T building bearing the name of a preeminent Jewish donor was “emblematic of a larger problem at the University of Toronto.”
On January 9, 2023, the University of Toronto Students’ Union also published a statement highlighting the Munk School defacement, and expressing alarm about the rising rates of antisemitic instances at U of T and in Toronto.
U of T’s response
At the latest Governing Council meeting on December 15, 2022, U of T President Meric Gertler highlighted the importance of addressing antisemitism and the work of the AWG, which U of T established in 2020.
The AWG submitted its report, which includes eight recommendations, in December 2021. Among those recommendations was that U of T ensure that kosher food is available on all campuses and actively apply the university’s Policy on Scheduling of Classes and Examinations and Other Accommodations for Religious Observations to avoid scheduling mandatory school events on significant Jewish holidays.
The AWG also recommended that “the University should frequently reiterate its commitment to academic freedom and inclusion.” The report called on the university to remind community members that the university won’t restrict events based on the presence of controversial content but that events must proceed in a “respectful, safe, and open manner.”
In his statement to the Governing Council, Gertler said that the university is committed to implementing all eight of the AWG’s recommendations and has “made significant progress.” Gertler also highlighted the steps TFOM has taken to acknowledge and combat antisemitism within the faculty. These measures include regularly consulting with Jewish learners — postdoctoral fellows and clinical residents — to support them, while also introducing curriculum changes and anti-racism training.
Miriam Borden, a member of the AWG and a PhD student in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, wrote in a statement to The Varsity, “When an [antisemitic] incident does occur, it reverberates throughout the entire Jewish community on our campus. The effect is chilling, alienating, and wounding.”
Borden wrote that, while the working group cautions against curtailing academic freedom or free speech, the university should consider antisemitism as egregious as other forms of racist and religious discrimination.
On January 23, U of T held a restorative circle to provide a forum for community members to share their experiences with antisemitism. In an interview with The Varsity, Jacqueline Dressler — Hillel UofT’s Advocacy Manager and the event’s facilitator — explained that the university has often asked Hillel UofT to host such events because of its prominent role in the Jewish community on campus.
“We think it’s wonderful that the university comes to us and asks us to help support them… to make sure the Jewish experience is reflected in the university’s culture,” said Dressler. “We should always be talking about antisemitism and how it affects Jewish students all the time, all year round,” she added.
In regard to Kuper’s claim that student associations did not provide kosher food at TFOM events, Amit Rozenblum — senior director and senior Jewish educator at Hillel UofT — explained that Hillel UofT offers five-dollar kosher meals for students five days a week.
He explained that Hillel UofT typically outsources kosher catering and offers recommendations for groups seeking to provide kosher food at their events.
Dressler commended Kuper for highlighting the types of antisemetic incidents that have “become really common on university campuses.”
“All members of the U of T community really should be outraged with the things that Dr. Kuper is describing,” Dressler said.
Kuper did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.
Editor’s note (January 30): A previous version of the article incorrectly introduced Dr. Kuper as an associate director at TFOM.