Around 9:00 pm on May 2, over 1,000 people surrounded King’s College Circle in support of the students calling on the university to cut ties with Israel.

The second day of protests were off to a much quieter start. As of 10:50 am, approximately 120 students, faculty, and members of the U of T community were within the gated area.

Less than 31 hours earlier, a group of 50 students calling on U of T to divest from companies supplying the Israeli military broke down part of the gate surrounding King’s College Circle and set up an encampment.

Student protesters at U of T have joined a number of other students in universities across Canada and the US in setting up camps to demand their schools divest from Israeli companies. As the encampment continues peacefully, students, faculty, and community members have made their stance on the ongoing protest. 

“Community guidelines”

Around 11:06 am, spokesperson Erin Mackey from UofT Occupy for Palestine (O4P) — the group of students organizing the protest — issued a statement to the press that were surrounding the encampment. 

Mackey — a fifth-year student studying environmental justice and political science — explained that during the first day, people were free to come and go inside the encampment. 

However, members of the O4P provided people entering the field with “community guidelines.” Mackey explained that the guidelines aimed to make sure that everyone who entered the space understood the students’ demands and the importance of U of T “divesting from Israeli apartheid.”

She emphasized that the guidelines also prohibited hate speech within the encampment, including anti-Palestinian racism, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism. 

Faculty and alumni support 

Alejandro Paz — an associate professor at U of T’s Department of Anthropology also issued a statement outside of the encampment to the press around 10:50 am. Paz is also a member of the Jewish Faculty Network, a group of Jewish faculty across Canadian colleges and universities who have been voicing their support for student encampments in solidarity with Palestine. 

“The students made it clear that they’re not going to be told ‘no’ to peaceful protest, to using their democratic rights,” Paz said. “They’re learning together, they’re thinking together, they’re showing what a great university can be.”

Paz added that students have been “trying to speak to the university administration” about matters related to Palestine and Israel for months but that U of T’s administration has been “pushing [the students] off or giving them one more meeting and then doing absolutely nothing.”

On May 2, U of T Alumni for Justice in Palestine — a newly established group of alumni standing in solidarity with the students at the encampment — published an open letter addressed to President Meric Gertler and the U of T Governing Council. 

The letter calls on the university to divest from companies and institutions “active and complicit in the Israeli occupation and genocide in Palestine,” as well as to address student demands; protect freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest for those advocating for Palestinian human rights; and issue a public statement “addressing the scholasticide against Palestinian educators, students, and the learning infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank.”  

As of May 3, the letter has received over 2,100 signatures. 

Shabbat dinner followed by counter protests

At 5:00 pm, members of the human rights organization Jewish Voice for Peace set up a Shabbat dinner inside King’s College Circle. Protest organizers prohibited chants from both inside and outside of the fences, in respect to Shabbat prayers. 

Around 6:00 pm, approximately 12 counter protestors gathered outside of the encampment on the front steps of University College. The counter protesters waved Canadian and Israeli flags and shouted at the protesters. 

In response, the protesters on the field began chanting, “Free, Free Palestine,” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” 

Almost an hour later, the counter protesters left the premises, with Campus Safety officers walking with four of them, away from King’s College Circle. 

Around 9:00 pm, organizers of the No Arms in the Arts Festival — a counter program to Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival — set up a 51-minute documentary screening program within the fences. Nearly 250 people were present within King’s College Circle by the time the screening concluded at 10:20 pm. 

Criticisms, concerns, and critiques

Students and organizations outside of the encampment have expressed concerns about the ongoing protests. 

At 11:00 am, Hillel Ontario and Hillel U of T posted a joint statement on Instagram calling on the university to “enforce their existing policies and hold violators accountable for their actions.”

The post read, “We watched with concern as tensions on campus rose throughout Thursday; including chants of ‘All Zionists are racists, all the Zionists are terrorists,’ and graffiti stating ‘Go back to Europe.’”

In the post, Hillel U of T stated that they had requested an urgent meeting with the university to “understand their thinking and plans ahead of Shabbat.” They remain hopeful that the university will take necessary steps “to ensure Jewish student safety and security.” 

In Paz’s statement to the press, he said the encampment is “a safe place for Jewish students, faculty and staff.” He explained that Jewish faculty, alongside members of O4P, were organizing sessions where Jewish students, faculty, and staff who have concerns, questions, or are curious about the encampment come and talk to them. 

At 6:16 pm, Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh wrote in an email sent to students that, “The University has received several questions and reports of concerning language as described above being used in signs and chants.” Welsh noted that the administration plans on reviewing all reports of these incidents and that the rally on May 2 at 7:00 pm involved “many from outside the U of T community.”

Her email also mentioned that they contacted student representatives from the encampment and expressed concerns, “including lack of crowd control, health and safety risks, destruction of property, and use of language that is considered discriminatory, threatening or hateful,” but that the university recognizes “diverse views” in the community “about the current situation.” 

The email added that the encampment occupies private property and that those involved are “at risk of being charged with trespass[ing] and destruction of property.” One of O4P’s spokespeople, Mohammad Yassin, told The Varsity that the university’s allegations of property destruction are “unprovable” and have “not been done by [O4P].” Yassin emphasized that the O4P does not support “any kind of destruction of property” and maintains that U of T should address O4P’s demands. 

Meanwhile, Welsh wrote in her email, “We continue to focus on avoiding conflict, being measured in our response, and fostering an environment that makes space for debate. We urge everyone to engage constructively with one another.” 

The Varsity reached out to the university for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.

With files from Ajeetha Vithiyananthan, Milena Pappalardo, and Eleanor Yuneun Park.