On 4 December 2020 the senior leadership of the University of Toronto announced that ‘It is our collective responsibility to address systemic racism, including antisemitism, within our tri-campus community and to cultivate a respectful learning and working environment for everyone.’ Having officially and publicly admitted that it had an antisemitism problem the university then announced the formation of an Antisemitism Working Group to study it and make recommendations. A year later, on 8 December 2021, the Working Group released its final report and the university immediately accepted all its recommendations.
The university never disclosed why it chose to address antisemitism at that moment. In fact antisemitic incidents had been happening at the University of Toronto for years and the university only seriously responded when it was publicly shamed into doing so. It is no surprise then that its response, including the report of its heavily criticised ‘Working Group’ has been inadequate.
The University of Toronto has been a hotbed of antisemitism throughout its history. Limiting the scope to more recent events, it’s the birthplace of the infamous ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ which often ends with calls to destroy the State of Israel, the Jewish peoples’ ancestral homeland. In 2012 its Graduate Student Union (GSU) voted to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS movement against Israel. Notoriously, in November 2019 it opposed supporting a student led drive to sell kosher food on campus since doing so would be ‘pro-Israel’.
But the problem was not limited to student groups. There was a ‘Jew count’ of Jewish faculty held during a class meeting at the Faculty of Social Work. And then there was the professor who refused to meet a Jewish student because of his pro-Israel views. The list goes on.
In September 2019 President Gertler had committed to combatting antisemitism on campus in an article in the Canadian Jewish News. But when the GSU Kosher food scandal happened shortly after his article appeared, no action was taken by the university – not even a statement distancing itself from the GSU’s decision. At that point another professor got in touch with me, as well as with the CEO of Bnai-Brith Canada and called for action. Many Jewish professors and others have been watching with great concern and we drafted a petition to President Gertler asking him to take action against antisemitism on campus. It was signed by 80 University of Toronto faculty. We never heard back.
In February, 2020 we reached out to the Canadian Jewish News who then published an article questioning why President Gertler had not replied to us despite his earlier public commitment to fighting antisemitism on campus. They contacted his office for comment and, now publicly shamed, they finally agreed to meet with us. The meeting took place in June 2020 and was attended by President Gertler, and two Vice-Presidents of the university, via Zoom. The Professor who initially contacted me, the CEO of Bnai-Brith Canada and I attended, of course, and presented a 30-page document chronicling recent antisemitic incidents at the university, the policies and procedures that the university already has in place to address these and demanded that among other actions, it address harassment of Jews on campus based on its own policies and procedures. We never received a reply nor any further communication from the senior administration.
At that meeting there was another attendee. University Professor Arthur Ripstein was introduced to us as the faculty member who would establish and chair a working group on antisemitism. So, no consultation. We were simply informed. We never asked for this and the implicit message was that the university was going to act with or without our concerns and that the meeting was just a pointless pleasantry to appease us. We then waited months for information about the terms of reference of this working group. We wrote the administration and expressed our concerns about its membership, expertise, methods, goals, lack of external oversight. We never heard back.
The Working Group was case of the university studying the university’s misconduct, Expert groups and individuals that study antisemitism, such as the Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, Bnai-Brith Canada, or Professor Deborah Lipstadt were not invited to attend. There were no undergraduate students represented on this working group either.
Frustrated with the administration’s unwillingness to engage with us and concerned about the way the working group had been set up, we launched a media campaign. Articles setting out our concerns appeared in the Canadian, American, and Israeli press, which included The National Post, The Toronto Star, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Algemeiner, Frontpage Magazine and more.
On 23 March 2021 a Zoom Townhall on Antisemitism at the University of Toronto was viewed by over 3800 individuals. Faculty and most importantly Jewish students shared their deep commitment to the university along with shocking unreported incidents of antisemitism. We heard testimony from a Jewish student who waited in line for coffee. Coins were thrown in front of him with the expectation that he pick them up since ‘all Jews care about is money’. There were more petitions and more community advocacy groups got involved. The university was now confronted with a public relations nightmare that raised questions about its true commitment to its stated principles of equity, diversity, and fighting all forms of racism.
And then came the ‘Azarova affair’. The university found itself embroiled in a complex controversy precipitated by the Dean of its Faculty of Law rejecting a hiring committee’s decision to hire Valentina Azarova for a non-academic position as the director of its International Human Rights Program. Azarova is known as a militantly anti-Israel activist and has defended Palestinian terrorists. She did not meet immigration requirements and may not have been the strongest candidate. Jewish groups supported the Dean’s decision while the University of Toronto’s Faculty Association (UTFA) inappropriately grieved over a non-faculty position and convinced the Canadian Association of University Teachers to censor the university over its decision to not hire Azarova. There was an external investigation by Judge Cromwell which exonerated the university. Azarova was nevertheless offered the position but never came.
On 15 June 2021, when speaking at York University, UTFA President Terezia Zoric made reference to an ‘entitled powerful Zionist minority’ which was engaging in ‘psychological warfare’ against critics of the Cromwell report. Pressure was now mounting from within. The senior administration may have realised how far its own members are willing to go to damage the university’s reputation in order to advance their misguided cause. Nevertheless, it never distanced itself from Zoric’s comments.
The Working Group had no external oversight. It’s unclear how its members were selected or what inputs and ideologies guided their decisions. But one can surmise. The Group rejected the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism despite it being adopted by over 30 countries and over 1,000 organisations and universities across the world, including the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario.
In a glaring admission of the university’s failure the Working Group recommended that ‘The University should explicitly include addressing antisemitism within the mandate of the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO) and all Equity offices, ensuring it is included in all of the University’s anti-racism training, education, and outreach campaigns.’ So, antisemitism was not already seen as a form of discrimination despite the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Ontario’s human rights legislation!
In a more hopeful recent sign, President Gertler issued a strong statement opposing an antisemitic motion passed by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) at their AGM on 24 November 2021 that committed SCSU to ’refrain from engaging with organizations, services, or participating in events that further normalize Israeli apartheid.’
As an optimist I hope that real change is in the air. As a realist, and having followed how poorly antisemitism has been dealt with at my beloved university, I remain skeptical. Given its past actions, and the misfire of the ‘Working Group’ there is little trust among many Jewish members of the university community that the university leadership has what it takes to address antisemitic incidents in good faith. After all, that leadership only started to take us seriously when we publicly shamed them into doing so.