Content warning: This article discusses antisemitism, genocide, and recent and ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.
The Varsity’s recent article on pro-Israel and Palestine protests on campus made some attempts at even-handedness by seeking to balance its discussion on antisemitism alongside Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.
However, I am disappointed that the only Jewish student interviewed about his experiences with antisemitism on campus after the war began on October 7 was Joshua Heuberger, a Conservative Party activist. As part of the U of T Conservatives, Heuberger organized a “pro-Israel” event on October 17 that was actually a thinly-veiled partisan rally.
Heuberger and the rally’s speakers do not fully represent the diversity of Jewish students at U of T. As Jews, we have a wide variety of different backgrounds, levels of religious observance, and political beliefs. We also have a diverse range of opinions on Israel and its relationship to Jewish identity, the occupation of Palestine, and the current war in Gaza. Some of us consider ourselves Zionists, which can colloquially mean anything from believing that a Jewish state should exist in some form to believing that all diaspora Jews should aspire to settle in Israel or displace all Palestinians. Others, like me, do not — partly because of the term’s ambiguity.
However, regardless of our particular beliefs, Jewish students at U of T face an environment on campus now that has become hostile at best and outright threatening at worst. Since the events of October 7, I have avoided the St. George campus unless absolutely necessary. Reportedly, this has been a common decision by Jewish students in the US and Canada for self-protective purposes.
I do not want to condemn pro-Palestinian activism at U of T overall. It is not antisemitic or pro-terrorist to be outraged by the human rights abuses faced by Palestinians under occupation or during the current siege and invasion of the Gaza Strip. Nonetheless, much of the language printed on innumerable pro-Palestine flyers posted across the St. George campus — or spoken at pro-Palestine rallies held on the steps of Sidney Smith Hall — has frightening implications for Jews distinct from calls for Palestinian justice and self-determination.
Most troublingly, I have seen posters on campus in the past few days expressing support for the “victory” of an ongoing “third intifada.” I believe “intifada” — meaning “tremor” in Arabic — has lost its original nonviolent connotations since the second intifada that began in 2000. This is different from calls for a ceasefire, a free Palestine, or an end to the occupation. I cannot interpret support for a “third intifada victory” other than as a celebration of the massacre of over 1,200 civilians in Israel last month and an endorsement of the goals of Hamas: the elimination of the Israeli state within internationally agreed-upon pre-1967 boundaries and the seven million Jews living there.
A representative of Hamas recently said that his movement would repeat the October 7 massacre endlessly to accomplish this nakedly genocidal aim. Previously, Hamas officials have propagated views of nearly all Jews in the diaspora as extremely broadly defined Zionists who are complicit in Israel’s existence and deserving of its brutality.
This notion of collective Jewish guilt and deserved punishment was also seemingly held by a UTM student who was arrested for alleged hateful threats, rumoured to be antisemitic. The staggering, very real rise in threats, hate speech, and physical attacks targeting diaspora Jews since October 7 mean our fears of violence are merited.
Both October’s massacre and the subsequent rise in anti-Jewish hate bring back some of our worst and most deeply-seated communal memories as Jews. This is not only true for students, like me, who descended from Holocaust survivors and refugees but also migrants who left their homes in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa partly due to pogroms — brutal incidents of communal violence which October 7 recalled — and founded most present-day diasporic communities worldwide. There has been a decade-long rise in fatal terrorist attacks at synagogues and other Jewish institutions globally. Given this history, existential fear is an understandable reaction to calls for a “third intifada victory.”
I hope this letter encourages greater empathy for the fears of Jewish students at U of T. Parts of our student body, as well as many faculty and staff, seemingly lack this empathy. In my opinion, The Varsity has also not adequately covered the fears of Jewish students, hopefully out of ignorance rather than contempt.
While I disagree with some arguments in recent Comment pieces in The Varsity on the Israel-Palestine conflict, all three authors spoke movingly to the dehumanization of Palestinians under the occupation and their anger that Palestinian and Muslim life feels less valued in the West than Israeli and Jewish life.
Pro-Palestinian activists at U of T and their sympathizers should consider whether they want to encourage a competitive race to the bottom in terms of dehumanization. Words and their meaning matter, even when deployed in pursuit of causes one considers urgent and just. Is the proper response to the devaluation of Palestinian life the devaluation of Jewish life? Do Jews deserve collective punishment because Palestinians have been collectively punished?
If you think so, you should have the honesty to say so openly, rather than hiding behind the abstractions of academic theory and ambiguous slogans.
James M. Levinsohn is a fifth-year PhD candidate at U of T’s Department of Art History.
Readers from the U of T community are welcome to submit letters to the editor that critique our editorial decisions. To hold our journalistic practices accountable, The Varsity is committed to publishing these letters. If you would like to submit a letter on an article that we’ve published, you can reach out to our Editor-in-Chief at [email protected] or our Comment Editor at [email protected].
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]