Content warning: This article discusses antisemitism, racism, and ongoing genocidal violence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. 

It’s obvious that Palestine and Israel have been on the minds of U of T students in recent months. Since October, at all three campuses, we’ve seen Palestine and Israel come up again and again in our news coverage in the context of academic lectures, club controversies, climate activism, campus art events, and university committees’ and student unionsmeetings and statements

In many cases, we’ve seen U of T students organize vigils, walkouts, sit-ins, and other protests in support of Palestine. And this student activism for Palestine shows no sign of stopping — it’s clear that Israel and Palestine are going to be at the forefront of students’ minds in the next school year as well. We’ve already seen activism for Palestine discussed at length in this student election cycle. Multiple candidates have explicitly brought up Palestine in their speeches and platforms for office, and students, including representatives from the student group Tkarón:to Students in Support of Palestine, have publicly questioned UTSU candidates about their stances on Palestine

Student activists for Palestine at U of T are not alone. This year, we’ve seen students participate in protests across the countryand beyond — against Israel’s invasion of Gaza. 

And, again, it’s obvious why students feel the need to talk about it. Since October 7, 2023, attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have killed more than 31,000 Palestinians and caused more than 8,000 to go missing in Gaza. 

In December 2023, South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on allegations of genocide over the Israeli military’s attacks against Palestinians in Gaza. In January 2024, the ICJ determined that none of the Israeli legal team’s defence was “sufficient to rule out the existance of a plausible intent to commit genocide.” It ordered Israel to “take all possible measures” to prevent a genocide, per the 1948 Genocide Convention. 

However, as of the time we’re writing this, Israeli ministers have completely dismissed the ICJ’s orders, and the death toll in Palestine has continued to rise by the thousands. 

In light of the ICJ’s preliminary ruling and Israeli government’s subsequent refusal to adhere to the court’s orders, we believe the latter’s treatment of Palestinians can be reasonably characterized as genocidal.

Not all students will agree with us. But all students should be able to agree that we need to be able to talk safely about violence in Gaza, and to talk about an ongoing genocide. 

That’s something we’ve seen writers tell us in our Comment section. But we’ve also heard concerns from students about speaking out — sometimes because of fears over rising hate crimes, but also sometimes because they’re unclear on how U of T may respond to them.

Once again, it’s obvious why: U of T’s attempts to intervene in issues of speech around Israel and Palestine so far have often either specifically punished pro-Palestine voices or have been confusing and unclear. 

U of T has a long history of suppressing speech for Palestine. From withholding fees from the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions caucus in 2022, to a controversial lecture in 2019 where U of T’s international relations program welcomed Israeli-British historian Efraim Karsh onto campus to espouse anti-Palestinian views, students have frequently criticized the university for allowing anti-Palestinian rhetoric on campus or suppressing speech on Palestine.

On October 18, President Meric Gertler wrote a statement to students expressing “profound grief for the victims of violence on both sides of this conflict.” In the statement, Gertler reaffirmed that U of T should be an environment “free from discrimination, racism, hate or fear” and that we must ensure “[diverse] perspectives, so long as they are lawful, continue to be heard.” 

But the university’s actions since October 7 have not done much to give students a reason to trust its actions in protecting student speech. Instead, in a year where students are witnessing more intense and direct violence in Gaza and Israel than they’ve ever seen, U of T’s actions have disappointingly failed to alleviate the tensions at home.

U of T’s firing of Imam Patel, and responses to faculty

UTSC’s firing of Imam Omar Patel is the most recent example of U of T’s inconsistency in approaching issues pertaining to the genocide in Gaza. UTSC fired Patel as UTSC’s Muslim chaplain — although he was employed directly by the Chaplaincy — seven weeks after Hillel Ontario, a Jewish student organization, asked the school to investigate a post allegedly from Patel that the organization received reports about, which it characterized as antisemitic. 

The university confirmed to The Varsity that it did receive a complaint about a post and conducted an investigation into it, although it did not specify whether this investigation was related to its decision to fire the Imam. 

Patel has claimed he did not make the post in question. Both Patel and UTSC students have criticized the university for its lack of transparency about how it conducted the investigation. 

To this day, U of T has not published a public statement regarding the results of the investigation — or even confirmed whether that investigation was on Patel’s actions at all. We find the school’s obfuscation of the investigation process — which even Patel himself claims he got minimal information on — concerning. And we’re not the only ones. In our article on his firing, students expressed fears about how the university’s actions might apply to them: “If [this] can happen to Imam Omar Patel then it can happen to any one of us [students],” one student said. 

At the same time, the university has not intervened in specific cases of U of T professors posting on social media about the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine — even with content that has reportedly made students feel unsafe. Markedly, it has failed to even address or conduct investigations into social media posts that espoused anti-Arab sentiment. 

Last October, an online collective called the “Students Against Discrimination at UofT” posted a petition for the university to investigate UTM psychology professor Stuart Brian Kamenetsky because of pro-Israel Facebook posts he made in 2013 containing anti-Arab racist tropes. The petition states that the post “affects a significant portion of the UTM student body, which is largely composed of Arab students” — and has got 2,468 signatures as of March 10. U of T has still not responded to it. 

Even more recently, on October 17, 2023, Kamenetsky further shared a LinkedIn post that included a racist caricature of a man with a green headband and exaggeratedly elongated nose washing blood off his hands, bemoaning, “Such barbarians.” It’s captioned, “Israel has shut off water supply to Gaza.” 

Kamenetsky isn’t the only professor who’s come under the community’s scrutiny for their remarks. Uahikea Maile — an assistant professor of Indigenous politics at U of T’s Department of Political Science — has shared content and made statements comparing Palestinians’ experiences with that of Indigenous peoples around the world and celebrating “Palestinian anticolonial resistance.” Since then, he’s received criticism from students and professors. Notably, Hillel U of T published an open letter on November 9 denouncing Maile’s statements. 

The U of T administration did not mention anything about responding to Kamenetsky or Maile’s actions in their responses to The Varsity for our November 26 news article. The Varsity has not been able to find any public posts from U of T admin saying that U of T has investigated any of these cases. 

While faculty are protected under the Memorandum of Agreement between U of T and the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), and all U of T members are protected under U of T’s Statement on Freedom of Speech, these policies also outline reasonable limits to community members’ freedom of speech: speech must not be discriminatory, restrictive, or coercive based on race, creed, colour, and religious belief when criticizing U of T or society at large. We believe that students’ reactions to the professors’ posts warrant a more transparent explanation as to how U of T applies its policies. 

U of T’s responses to the UTMSU on Palestine

The university’s condemnation of an October 10 statement from the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) on the Israeli government’s violence in and long-term besiegement of Gaza seems like a blatant example of the university selectively applying free speech restrictions. On October 13, UTM Principal and Vice-President Alexandra Gillespie released an official statement criticizing the October 10 statement from the UTMSU, where the union expressed support for Palestinians’ rights to self-determination and “to resist an apartheid regime.”

Gillespie wrote in her statement that the union did “not represent the views of its full membership,” which includes all students at UTM, and explained that student unions should not be making statements on “contentious issues that purport to represent the views of all of their constituents.”  

After, on October 23, UTMSU executives and the UTM administration held a meeting to discuss the post. UTMSU President Gulfy Bekbolatova alleged that, at the meeting, administrators indicated that, if the union had put out a statement that instead supported Israel, the UTM administration would not have condemned it.

If this is indeed what UTM administrators were trying to indicate, it is blatantly a biased application of the university’s speech guidelines. Even if not, UTM’s lack of clarity and apparent subjectivity about how it would criticize UTMSU’s post in this other circumstance indicates the lack of clear guidelines on freedom of speech at U of T. If the university was more transparent on freedom of speech guidelines, we believe this incident wouldn’t have happened. 

What next?

In a university composed of over 97,000 students, it is understandable that these students have considerable differences of opinion around a global issue as horrific and tumultuous as this one. However, as Gertler himself said to U of T News, U of T has a “long-standing commitment to freedom of expression, and must play an ever more important role in ensuring free debate is allowed to take place and that all voices can be heard as part of open discourse.” We expect that the administrators of such a university should have a consistent — and transparent — approach to how it judges issues around freedom of speech. 

What students seem to be asking for is simple: for the university to enforce its guidelines on speech consistently, fairly, and transparently. Instead, U of T has kept any action it’s taken behind closed doors, and left students to wonder how U of T actually regulates speech, whether it will protect their own voices, and whether it will actually protect them from hate speech. 

So, what has U of T done to address these concerns? Well, on January 1 of this year, U of T hired English Professor Randy Boyagoda as a civil discourse adviser. U of T’s official memo about his appointment writes vaguely that he will “establish a working group that will lead community consultations and develop a plan for tri-campus events, resources, and other initiatives for students and faculty that develop and sustain sensibilities and capacities for productive civil discourse.” 

However, since the announcement and subsequent press appearances by Boyagoda, as far as we can tell, neither U of T nor Boyagoda have announced any more official updates or specific plans about what this job will actually entail, and about what information and support students can expect from his work. U of T simply hiring Boyagoda is not sufficient for the school to properly facilitate and protect free speech and discourse on campus — students need more concrete information, and they need it soon. 

This issue isn’t going to go away, and it doesn’t look like students are going to stop talking about Palestine. So the clock is ticking for U of T: without a consistent standard for applying its guidelines on protected and penalizeable speech, it will be going into the upcoming year completely unprepared to respond to student activism. And the longer it deals with issues of speech behind closed doors — and the longer it refuses to respond to students’ and student groups’ concerns, demands, petitions, and letters — the less faith the student body will have in their administration.

U of T: if you understand your own guidelines, adhere to them. If you have a stance, state it. U of T’s apparent negligence of the very policies that it created, combined with its seeming hesitancy to show how it is conducting investigations, has worsened an already bad situation. It shouldn’t take another genocide for U of T to decide that it is time to stand up for what’s right — and allow students to do the same. 

The Varsity’s masthead elects the editorial board at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].