University of Toronto: Antisemitism from the top down

Taylor Levy
September 3, 2021

As children, we often believed authority figures were intrinsically good. Looking to leaders for direction, children grow up with the belief that authorities don’t harm them. At some point in our lives, we learn that this narrative is not always true. Historically, those with positions of authority have used their position to put their interests first. At the University of Toronto (UofT), this is exactly the case as Jewish students’ voices are silenced in a continuous wave of antisemitism that comes from those with a position of power.

At UofT, antisemitism has consistently come from the top-down. Professors and the University of Toronto’s Student Union (UTSU) have displayed immense antisemitism in recent years, thus leaving few places for Jewish students to voice their fears or experiences on campus.

Faculty at UofT

When professors are perpetrators of antisemitism, students can be uncomfortable going to them to voice their fears. It is not a surprise that Jewish students may feel uncomfortable speaking to their professors on antisemitism; in 2018 history professor Jens Hanssen accused a Jewish student of being an Israeli agent and refused to have a meeting with them.

However, the refusal to talk to a Jewish student was just the beginning. In September 2020, the Faculty of Law allegedly gave an oral offer to Valentina Azarova — an outspoken anti-Israel academic whose papers primarily focus on human rights issues in Israel/Palestine — to be the new director of the International Human Rights Program. Allegedly, upon finding out about the offer, tax judge David E. Spiro, UofT alumni and donor, pushed back because of anti-Israel work that Azarova published, which in turn caused the offer to be rescinded. The potential hiring of Azarova is not the issue; the concern lies in the conspiracy theories that were quick to be applied to the situation.

With criticism mounting, UofT commissioned retired Supreme Court justice Thomas A. Cromwell to conduct an independent inquiry known as the Cromwell Report. Cromwell found that while Judge Spiro did inquire about the hiring of Azarova while on a fundraising call with the Assistant Vice President, they did not have an impact on the offer being rescinded. However, the public’s belief that Judge Spiro toyed with the hiring process does seem to be an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Because Judge Spiro is Jewish and donates money, many critics of UofTs decision to not hire Azarova have placed the blame on Spiro, after he allegedly threatened to pull out donations. This directly exemplifies the Rothschild conspiracy, where wealthy Jews supposedly use their money to control global institutions.

The hiring controversy eventually led the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) to censure UofT. With over 72,000 members, CAUT represents professors, researchers and other staff members from public Canadian universities and colleges. Believing that it was impossible for external sources to not have been involved in the hiring process of Valentina Azarova, CAUT gave UofT 6 months to rectify the situation, beginning in October 2020. When the university did not resolve the situation by hiring Azarova, CAUT officially released a statement imposing its censure, asking its members to not accept appointments, speaking engagements or any honor that the university might offer. This was all done without recognizing Azarova’s prior membership of al-Haq, an organization affiliated with the Popular Front for Palestinian Liberation of Palestine, the latter of which is a designated terrorist organization in Canada.

University of Toronto Student Union

The goal of UTSU is to advocate for students by lobbying the government and the university. However, if UTSU displays antisemitism, Jewish students may feel uncomfortable going to them to bring up their fears of being on campus, despite safeguarding the individual rights of the student being a main tenant in the UTSU Mission Statement.

After the Israel/Hamas conflict in May, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) created a letter to the university calling on them to condemn Israel’s treatments of Palestinians, discontinue the research program to Israel — despite the trip advocating for coexistence in the Middle East — as well as rectifying the hiring process, referring to the Azarova affair. UTSU originally signed the letter alongside over 50 student groups. After controversy arose over the signature, the union removed it in July, one month after signing. The signature has since been reinstated with the exact reasoning unknown.

This comes after the University of Toronto’s Graduate Student Union attempted to ban kosher food in 2019 when members of Hillel submitted a motion for the union to officially support the kosher food campaign, which argues that Jewish students deserve to have equal access to food on campus. The external commissioner of the union told Hillel the motion may not pass because Hillel is known to be pro-Israel. After the issue sparked public outrage, the union released a public apology and said that the comments were taken out of context.

The Call and Response

Where does the intersection of faculty and students then lie, if student groups and faculty members have been shown to engage in antisemitic libels? At the height of the Israel/Hamas conflict in May, a group of medical students posted a letter online calling out Dr. Ritika Goel, the faculty lead in social accountability at UofT’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, for their antisemitic tweets during the conflict.

The students who wrote the letter declared that conflating Zionism with settler colonialism and the inability to take accountability severely impacts the Jewish community at Temerty Faculty of Medicine, many of whose families escaped Nazi Europe or are refugees from Middle Eastern countries. Thus, Jewish students feel as though there is a zero-tolerance policy for every form of racism except antisemitism and gave the university several steps to take action whilst calling for the dismissal of Dr. Goel.

The Jewish students were met with a response signed by over 1000 medical learners and physicians who claimed the letter was factless, libellous, and potentially breached the student code of conduct. The letter went on to seemingly claim that a Jewish man beaten in Toronto during a pro-Palestine protest was justified because of supposed ties to the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Not only have the claims of his ties to the JDL been debunked in an interview with the Toronto Sun, but he also stated that he went for a “peaceful protest.” In a time when antisemitism is at an all-time high, accusing a Jewish man of being part of a terrorist organization while justifying his assault is concerning.

The letter ends with the medical learners and physicians voicing their disappointment in their Jewish colleagues who spoke out against antisemitism at UofT publicly rather than “taking the opportunity to dialogue with their peers and faculty members.” As the history at UofT has shown us, Jewish students are continuously put in positions where they are unable to go to their peers or professors. Going public with their experience of antisemitism is one of the last options Jewish students have at UofT, and the medical signatories, rather than acknowledging the challenges Jewish students face, bully the credibility of the statement Jewish students previously made.

The situation becomes especially problematic as UofT is seen as a top school, with a number 1 ranking in Canada and number 17 globally. Thus, the few conversations surrounding the problems that arise are quickly snuffed out. Though an antisemitism working group was created at the university in December 2020 to review programming, activities, processes and practices of the institution while making recommendations to support UofTs response to antisemitism, the university still faces the same issues of antisemitism nearly one year later. Before it becomes more dangerous, the administration must take action to safeguard their Jewish community.

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