Content warning: this article discusses antisemitism, Islamophobia, and recent and ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza.
Two professors’ online commentary related to the violence in Israel and Gaza have sparked questions among the U of T community about academic freedom — and when the school’s administration should take action against professors’ public speech.
In October and November this year, Professor Uahikea Maile, an assistant professor of political science at UTSG, posted a tweet and made statements on a podcast celebrating “Palestinian anticolonial resistance,” which some students, faculty, and campus groups have characterized as antisemitic and as celebrating violence against civilians. Meanwhile, in 2013, UTM psychology Professor Stuart Brian Kamenetsky posted cartoons on Facebook that some students, who have recently set up a petition calling on U of T to take action against him, have characterized as Islamophobic.
Professor Maile’s comments amid October 7 Hamas attacks
Around 4:00 pm on October 7, the day Hamas launched attacks against Israel that precipitated the current violence in Israel and Palestine, Maile — who is Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiian) — posted on X. “As Hawaiians wake up to the news of Palestinian anticolonial resistance in Gaza to Israeli settler colonialism, remember that—from Hawaiʻi to Palestine—occupation is a crime,” he wrote.
In a November 5 podcast episode from the Indigenous activist coalition The Red Nation, Maile discussed a solidarity statement on Palestine he wrote with other Indigenous activists. Speakers discussed violence by the IDF against Palestinians since and before October 7 and compared Palestinians’ experiences with the experiences of Indigenous peoples around the world.
“To see the breaking free of Gazans from the world’s largest open-air prison containment site, where a majority of the population of Palestinians are already made to be refugees, was an expression and a movement and a feeling of jubilation for that kind of free and liberation to occur… so in that jubilation, I was very energized,” said Maile.
Although Maile didn’t specify what he was referring to in this quote during the podcast, he wrote in a November 18 essay called “Let Gaza Change You” that he was expressing happiness in response to images of Palestinians piloting bulldozers and bringing down sections of the border fence around Gaza.
On November 9, Hillel U of T posted an open letter on Instagram condemning both Maile’s comments during the podcast and his October 7 post for characterizing Hamas’ attacks as anticolonial resistance.
“For Jewish students, faculty, and staff at U of T, as well as all those affected by the terrorist attacks of October 7, hearing a professor suggest that we might have something to learn from Hamas, a Canadian-designated terrorist entity, is clearly a call to violence. Not only does Professor Maile suggest that we can learn from a brutal terrorist massacre of innocents – but he felt jubilation in its wake. This is unacceptable,” Hillel U of T wrote.
The letter stated, “It is obvious that Maile’s words go beyond any sort of academic freedom, or freedom of expression. This is hate.”
It notes that some students and faculty have approached Hillel U of T to express fear about returning to campus because of Maile’s remarks and called for U of T to hold Maile accountable.
U of T’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that “no member of the University should use language or indulge in behaviour intended to demean others” based on group characteristics such as ethnicity and ancestry. Still, it continues, “the values of mutual respect and civility may, on occasion, be superseded by the need to protect lawful freedom of speech. However, members should not weigh lightly the shock, hurt anger or even the silencing effect that may be caused by use of such speech.”
U of T’s Memorandum of Agreement with the faculty association entitles faculty to academic freedom — the right to “investigate, speculate, and comment without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University of Toronto and society at large.”
When The Varsity asked Maile if his remarks were in reference to violence against Israeli civilians on October 7, Maile wrote, “I reject this interpretation of the words that I’ve said. The misrepresentations of me based on this interpretation are slanderous.”
Reactions from students and professors
Nathaniel Borins, a third-year political science specialist at UTSG who identifies as “a visibly Jewish student,” first came across Maile’s remarks on an online post and was immediately shocked. He worries that Maile’s comments and the hatred they express will “inspire” students he will interact with, and believes that U of T should condemn the remarks or take disciplinary action.
“[These remarks] create an atmosphere that is less safe for Jewish students and signals to other people in the university who mean the Jewish students harm… encouragement for them to follow such impulses,” he said.
According to Lilach Gilady, a UTSG associate professor of political science, Maile’s remarks also make her workplace feel less safe. “It’s not just an abstract question of freedom of speech or academic freedom. It’s also a workplace,” she told The Varsity in an interview. “Should I, as a faculty member, feel comfortable sitting with this particular colleague in our community when he has expressed jubilation at the murder of my family friends?”
The incident also raised questions about how faculty members’ social media presence should reflect on their academic institutions.
“When you identify on social media as a U of T professor, is it really, completely disconnected from your workplace?” she said. “This ongoing conflict has really brought this question to the forefront.”
Yoel Inbar, an assistant professor in the UTSC psychology department, found Maile’s remarks offensive but still argued that they should be protected by academic freedom.
“While this is a case that’s clearly morally offensive, it’s also to me not a particularly difficult case. In terms of academic freedom, he went on a podcast, he expressed some views that many people are going to disagree with — and he did not threaten anybody, he did not incite violence,” he said.
Professor Melissa Williams of the UTSG political science faculty said people have been misrepresenting Maile’s views in a way that is indicative of wider issues in discourse about the violence in Gaza and Israel.
“It is categorically false to say that anything in Professor Maile’s statements in the Red Nation podcast, or in any of his social media posts, justifies violence against civilians,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity. She wrote that Maile’s essay “makes explicit” that his reaction on October 7 specifically referred to the images of a bulldozer allowing Palestinians to break free from a fence around the Gaza Strip and had nothing to do with Hamas.
Williams also wrote that the issue points to a double standard in what people can say about Palestine. “Hate speech directed at any group is not acceptable, but it is important to acknowledge that in the current moment there are concerted efforts to redefine the meaning of ‘antisemitism’ to include any criticism of the state of Israel and to bar advocacy for Palestinian rights,” she wrote.
Student petition criticizing Professor Kamenetsky
On October 16, Students Against Discrimination at UofT created a petition demanding U of T investigate Kamenetsky for Facebook posts he made in 2013. As of November 24, the petition has 2,358 signatures.
The screenshots of Kamenetsky’s Facebook posts included in the petition are shown to be posted on his personal account. All of the posts are dated from 2013, and they comprise various graphics promoting Israel, including a cartoon with a stereotypical depiction of an Arab man.
Additionally, a screenshot of a more recent LinkedIn post reshared by Kamenetsky features a cartoon that Kamenetsky describes in a November op-ed as a “caricature of a Hamas terrorist (typical green headband for clear identification with Islamic extremism) attempting to wash his bloody hands.” The cartoon includes the caption, “Israel has shut off water supply to Gaza.”
The petition claims that these posts are “offensive,” “misleading,” and demonstrate discrimination against Arab students at UTM. “Professor Kamenetsky’s posts have painted us as violent terrorists and savages – a gross misrepresentation that fosters an environment of fear and hostility,” it reads.
In an email to The Varsity, Kamenetsky explained that the posts were not directed at Arab individuals but toward “Hamas, terrorism, authoritarian regimes and media bias.” He claimed that Muslim students had already contacted him asking him to remove the cartoon post, and that he removed the post. The Varsity did not find any of these posts on Kamenetsky’s Facebook page.
The student petition calls on U of T to thoroughly investigate the posts and take “appropriate disciplinary action” against Kamenetsky, claiming that the posts violate U of T’s “Code of Conduct.”
According to U of T’s Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment policy, which follows the Ontario Human Rights Code, any behaviour that includes “threatening or offensive comments” and creates a poisoned environment in the workplace can violate the right to equal treatment without discrimination.
Academic and non-academic administrators are also required to fulfill the institution’s requirement of creating a space of learning, free from discrimination and harassment.
A Reddit thread shared all of the posts mentioned in the petition and questioned why he had not received any repercussions.
The student who created the petition — who asked for anonymity given the economic repercussions people in the US and Canada have experienced for publically supporting Palestine — identifies as Arab. They told The Varsity that they created the petition after seeing the Reddit thread and the posts published on Kamenetsky’s account.
They explained that they don’t know if the posts that Kamenetsky shared were necessarily “hate speech.” Yet, they still stated that it was very unprofessional for a professor to be posting “bigotry” and “biased-sided commentary.”
“The fact that he is probably teaching lots of Arab and Muslim students, and to see how he really views us outside of the classroom was quite eye-opening. So I think I was just disappointed, angry,” said the student.
Professor Kamenetsky’s response
In his email to The Varsity, Kamenetsky wrote that he values all lives and that his “heart bleeds” for “all innocent lives lost in any conflict.” He said he has been promoting human rights for his entire career.
Kamenetsky described the petition as a “witch hunt consistent with cancel culture trying to silence me.” He said there was “nuanced conversation” in the Reddit post, but claimed that no one else had reached out to him about the petition to “have a reasonable conversation and rational debate.”
Kamenetsky also shared the op-ed he wrote in November for the online Fathom Journal, which aims to promote a “deeper understanding of Israel and the region,” according to the publication’s website. He argued that U of T lacks academic freedom for faculty discussing opinions that support Israel, and especially for Jewish faculty. In the op-ed, he wrote that the cartoon of a “Hamas terrorist” he published recently could be seen as “distasteful,” but ultimately argued that it was part of an important dialogue that the university should protect as free speech. He alleged that he had received “threatening” voicemails and emails after the petition was created.
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson stated that U of T is committed to supporting all community members impacted by the posts and the current violence in the Middle East. They encouraged those affected to reach out to U of T for available support.