Content warning: This article discusses death, violence, anti-Palestinian racism, and antisemitism.
Since October 7, after attacks on Israel by the militant group Hamas and retaliatory strikes on Gaza by the Israeli military, U of T students and faculty have organized rallies, vigils, and protests across campus in support of Palestine and Israel.
Some protesters organized in support of Israel and spoke about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus. Some called on U of T to publicly acknowledge the historical harms and violence perpetrated by the Israeli government against Palestinians. Others called on the university to sever ties with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) given its financial holdings in technology used by the Israeli military to monitor Palestinians.
Current state of the conflict
As of October 29, more than 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza and 1,400 people in Israel have died in the ongoing violence between Hamas — a militant group which currently controls the Gaza Strip — and the Israeli military and the ensuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
On October 7, Hamas launched surprise attacks against Israel and took more than 200 Israeli civilians and soldiers hostage. Hours later, Israel commenced airstrikes against the Gaza Strip.
According to a statement from the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General on October 24, the Israeli government’s air strikes have displaced over one million people across the Gaza Strip. Since October 9, Israel has imposed a siege on Gaza, exacerbating the lack of resources Gazans already experienced as a result of Israel’s 16-year blockade. Many Gazans lack access to water and food.
Although Egypt, the only other country bordering Gaza, has generally kept its border closed, it recently sent in four aid convoys, and the Israeli government has agreed to restore water to a pipeline serving southern Gaza. However, the UN has warned that this aid does not provide enough food and water to fulfill Gazans’ basic needs.
The Israeli government continues to bar humanitarian aid groups from bringing in fuel, hindering water facilities’, desalination plants’, and hospitals’ ability to operate. Fuel in the Gaza Strip has almost entirely run out.
On October 27, the Israeli government cut off phone connections and internet services in the Gaza Strip, severing Gazans’ communications with the outside world. The same day, the Israeli military escalated airstrikes and ground attacks against Gaza.
Pro-Israel rally met with counter protest
On October 17, the student club U of T Conservatives organized a rally outside Sidney Smith Hall. On the group’s Instagram post announcing the event, it wrote that it held the event to show its “unwavering support for Israel against Hamas terrorism.”
In a post on Instagram released before the protest, the U of T Muslim Students Association (MSA) called on U of T administration to stop the rally. The group’s post referenced statements made by Israeli government officials that some commentators have characterized as calling for genocide against Palestinians. The U of T MSA wrote that, by encouraging Israel’s actions, the rally would foster “hatred and Islamophobia.”
Hillel U of T originally announced on Instagram that it would take part in the rally but later posted that it did not align itself with the rally and had decided to host a “private vigil” instead. “Our intention is to create a space to come together peacefully as a community to mourn the lives that were lost, kidnapped, and abused in the terrorist attacks in Israel and the war that has begun since,” Hillel U of T wrote in the post. “We look not to create further division and animosity during this time, but rather stand united to grieve.”
Joshua Heuberger, a first-year student studying political science, helped organize the rally. In an interview with The Varsity, Heuberger claimed that when he came to U of T, people told him that the university had “the most antisemitic campus in the country.” He hoped that the rally would show “that there is a Jewish voice, and a Zionist voice here on campus.”
In an interview with The Canadian Jewish News, Heuberger explained he had seen people taking down posters about the hostages captured by Hamas, actions he described as antisemitic. According to the BBC, Hamas has released four hostages and still holds more than 200 people captive.
The rally, which began around 5:00 pm, started with about 20 people. As Laura Smith — a Progressive Conservative Member of the Provincial Parliament — started speaking, counterprotesters began chanting “Free, free Palestine.”
More than a dozen officers stood between protesters while the pro-Israel rally continued speeches, and almost 100 pro-Palestine protesters continued chanting.
Sara Rasikh, a first-year master’s student studying social justice education, organized the pro-Palestine counterprotest. She explained in an interview with The Varsity that they organized the counterprotest after discovering that the event, which was initially planned as a vigil, had become a pro-Israel rally.
Rasikh said she reached out to people she knew who were “already experiencing hurt and pain and anti-Palestinian racism on campus.” Rasikh described instances where professors asked students to remove their keffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf that symbolizes Palestinian resistance, freedom, and independence.
In light of the Israeli government killing many Palestinian civilians, Rasikh said that a pro-Israel rally was “extremely dismissive of this pain.”
Vigil and protest for Palestine
Rasikh also helped organize a pro-Palestine protest that occurred on October 20 and a vigil for victims in Gaza on October 25. The October 20 protest, organized by a coalition of independent students, began at Sidney Smith Hall. In an interview with The Varsity, Rasikh wrote that more than 500 students attended the protest.
The protest marched to another demonstration at Queens Park while yelling chants like “Free, free Palestine” and “Palestine will never die.”
Speakers, who included students and a history expert, discussed Palestine’s history and the violence Palestinians have faced. The speakers also criticized the university’s October 9 statement about the conflict, arguing that it did not adequately discuss the Israeli military’s air strikes on Gaza or the longstanding human rights abuses against Palestinians. On October 18, the Office of the President released another statement expressing sympathy for Israeli and Palestinian civilians and horror at the violence they have endured, calling for an environment that supports civil discussion.
The speakers also called out U of T President Meric Gertler for not acknowledging the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital blast. The blast in Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza on October 18 killed hundreds of Palestine civilians, including those who sought refuge in the hospital.
According to CNN, Israel has provided evidence that the hospital blast was due to a misfire from a militant group in Gaza. The Canadian government has publicly stated that its independent analysis suggests “an errant rocket fired from Gaza” caused the blast, and multiple news organizations who originally attributed the destruction to Israel have later walked back their claims. The New York Times and the BBC have both launched independent investigations into footage of the blast, which they’ve deemed inconclusive, and the UN has called for an independent investigation into its cause.
In speeches, the protesters demanded that the university explicitly acknowledge the apartheid and violence Palestinians have endured, ensure people have the freedom to speak about Palestinian rights on campus without public pressure, create resources so Palestinian students can report anti-Palestinian racism, and divest its endowment from Israeli companies.
The U of T MSA and the Palestine Forum — a U of T educational initiative — helped organize the October 25 vigil.
At the Gaza vigil, hosted in Sidney Smith Hall, participants mourned the Palestinians, particularly children, killed by the Israeli military’s airstrikes. According to the UN humanitarian organization UNICEF, the current conflict has killed or injured more than 4,000 children in the Gaza Strip and killed more than 30 children in Israel.
Speakers included Palestinian students, who shared spoken word pieces and led a prayer, and Alejandro Paz, a professor of anthropology at UTSC. Paz’s research focuses on the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
“My heart is heavy for those currently held hostage [by Hamas], including members of my extended family. My strongest fears, however, are about the Israeli killing machine and the enormous support the Israeli state has received from North Atlantic imperial powers,” said Paz during the vigil.
Before the prayers began, organizers spent 10 minutes reading the names and ages of Gazans the Israeli government had killed in the current violence.
RBC event disrupted
During a recruitment event at U of T hosted by the RBC on October 18, a group of students walked on stage with signs displaying the words “Free Palestine” and “RBC is killing me.” In an email to The Varsity, the group of students wrote that they demanded “that the bank be removed from campus indefinitely” and highlighted RBC’s role in funding surveillance technology used by the Israeli government against Palestinians.
RBC currently owns over two million shares — valued at over $37 million — in the company Palantir Technologies Inc. According to Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the company produces a predictive system used by Israeli security forces to identify Palestinians they believe might be “[involved] in terror attacks.”
25 Canadian organizations, including Palestine and Jewish Unity, Canada Palestine Association, and the Niagara Movement for Justice in Palestine-Israel, recently signed an open letter demanding that RBC sell its shares in Palantir Technologies.
RBC hosts recruitment on campus and provides internship opportunities to Rotman Commerce students. RBC has also donated money to U of T, including a three million dollar donation to fund ONRamp — a workspace for young innovators at UTSG.
U of T Media Relations declined to comment on the protesters’ demand that the university sever its relationship with RBC.
If you or someone you know has experienced harassment or discrimination based on race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship and/or creed at U of T, report the incident to the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity office: https://antiracism.utoronto.ca/help/.
You can report incidents of anti-Muslim racism through the National Council of Canadian Muslims’ Hate Crime Reporting form at https://www.nccm.ca/programs/incident-report-form/, and antisemitic incidents at U of T to Hillel U of T at https://hillelontario.org/uoft/report-incident/.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
- Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
- Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
- Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
- U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030
If you or someone you know has experienced anti-Muslim racism and is in distress, you can contact:
- Canadian Muslim Counselling at 437-886-6309 or [email protected]
- Islamophobia Support Line at 416-613-8729
- Nisa Helpline at 1-888-315-6472 or [email protected]
- Naseeha Mental Health at 1-866-627-3342
- Khalil Center at 1-855-554-2545 or [email protected]
- Muslim Women Support Line at 647-622-2221 or [email protected]
If you or someone you know has experienced antisemitism and is in distress, you can contact:
- Hillel Ontario at [email protected]
- Chai Lifeline Canada’s Crisis Intervention Team at 1 (800) 556-6238 or [email protected]
- Jewish Family and Child Services of Greater Toronto at 416 638-7800 x 6234
The Hamilton Jewish Family Services at [email protected]