We’ve written before about Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada in connection to BDS and virulently anti-Israel activism crossing over into flagrant antisemitism and creating a toxic environment for Jews, Anti-Israel protest disrupts vote to support Holocaust Education Week at Ryerson U.
In that earlier post we highlighted how several groups of Ryerson students, members of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association, reportedly staged an “unofficial” walk-out so that a student government vote on a resolution to commemorate Holocaust Education Week would be deprived of a quorum.
Now, a new disturbing story has surfaced at Ryerson. But this time it involves anti-Israel, pro-BDS faculty there allegedly behaving badly toward a Jewish undergraduate student.
As discussed further below, essentially these professors are accused of helping to deprive the student of what would have been a valuable educational opportunity to work with a Toronto-based liberal Jewish agency.
Below we provide an overview of the incident and the official statement about it released this past weekend by the Ryerson administration. Statements from the student involved and from the Executive Director of StandWithUs Canada exclusive for this Legal Insurrection post are also included below.
Ryerson Student Asserts Was Prevented from Working with Toronto Jewish Organizations
At issue are a series of conversations, conducted primarily over email, between a Jewish undergraduate student majoring in the field of Social Work—Rebecca Katzman (22)—and faculty affiliated with this school at Ryerson.
According to the exchanges reported in The Toronto Sun, all of which occurred in August and September of 2015, Katzman was discouraged (and eventually, effectively prevented) from pursuing her third-year placement (a type of required internship) at a respected Toronto Jewish organization—the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre (JCC) or the United Jewish Appeal (UJA).
Both organizations have strong “track records” in addressing social justice issues, so Katzman had assumed that there’d be no problem getting her placement request for either one of these agencies approved.
She thought wrong.
According to Sue-Ann Levy, who broke the story on Sunday May 28 in a lead cover for the Toronto Sun, Katzman “wasn’t prepared in the slightest for what happened” with Heather Bain, the School of Social Work’s Field Education Coordinator, when she approached her with the JCC and UJA placement request.
Levy reports for the Toronto Sun:
After making it clear to Bain about her preferred placement, Katzman said the field coordinator advised her in an e-mail in late August of 2015 she did not follow up with the JCC or UJA because their values appeared to be ‘in opposition’ to the values of the School of Social Work.
Bain listed those values as the advancement of anti-oppression; anti-racism; anti-colonialism and decolonization; feminism; anti-capitalism; Queer and trans liberation struggles; issues in disability and madness (cct); among others (many of which are not listed on the school’s own website.)
‘My understanding is both agencies have a strong anti-Palestinian lean,’ Bain continued, suggesting that if Katzman agreed to bring a ‘critical awareness’ (of Palestinian solidarity movements) to either agency she might reconsider.”
Bain offered to coordinate a possible placement at another agency (Katzman ended up completing her third-year placement at an organization that serves children who have autism spectrum disorders).
Most students faced with that kind of faculty pushback would have let the matter drop.
But Rebecca Katzman is not like most students. This gutsy young lady doggedly pursued the issue, determined to get to the bottom of Bain’s contention that Toronto’s JCC and UJA stand against social justice values.
So she wrote another follow-up email to Bain.
She specifically asked the field education coordinator how she came to her conclusions, since the JCC and UJA “websites do not indicate any anti-Palestinian policies in the slightest.”
That’s when things really got ugly.
Ryerson’s Pro-BDS, Anti-Israel Jewish Faculty Intervene to Nix Katzman’s Placement Request
One can understand, based on the rest of the story reported in Levy’s Toronto Sun article, why Katzman waited nearly two years to tell it.
Now that she’s finished her coursework, her grades are in, and she’s about to graduate with a Bachelor of Social Work on June 8, Katzman no longer has to “fear retaliation from the faculty” and feels that she can speak freely about her “devastating” experience.
To my mind, Katzman has a strong case for both—especially based on subsequent emails exchanges with Bain and her boss, Kristie Wright, who today still serves as the School of Social Work’s Field Education Manager.
On August 25, 2015 in a lengthy email, Bain told Katzman that she decided not to pursue the JCC and UJA agency placements after consulting with some Jewish colleagues affiliated with “Jews Against Israeli Apartheid movements.”
Bain explains that these “trusted” colleagues succeeded in persuading her that Toronto’s main Jewish agencies aren’t reflective of the School of Social Work’s values because they aren’t sufficiently supportive of “Palestine solidarity movements.”
As far as I can tell, there’s no “Jews Against Israeli Apartheid” organization in the Toronto area. However, there is an active group which goes by the name of Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA). It promotes the cultural and economic boycotting and isolating of Israel (like a recent effort to stop the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from performing in Tel Aviv) and fields programming that vilifies Israel as a colonial, racist, apartheid state. It most recently campaigned in solidarity with jailed Palestinian terrorists:
The School of Social Work Begins to Backtrack
As noted in the Toronto Sun article, with encouragement from the pro-Israel campus organization StandWithUs, Katzman proceeded to book a meeting with then-Ryerson president Sheldon Levy to discuss the issue.
She indicated doing so in an email to Bain on September 4. The email (LI was provided with a copy) is brilliant.
In it, Katzman boldly asks to see a list of other agencies that were rejected from the Social Work program on account of their being opposed to the school’s values. She bluntly calls out Bain’s “wild accusations” about the JCC and UJA being anti-Palestinian and requests a list of those colleagues who were involved in making that determination “without any evidence.”
She also mentions that Bain would be “wise to inform” these colleagues that:
to call Israel an Apartheid state is academically dishonest and is not only an insult to the only democratic state in the Middle East, but is even more insulting to people who are Black in South Africa. Israel is a multiethnic, multiracial state with freedom of religion and civil rights for all its citizens. Israel has 15 sanctioned religions and a 20% Arab minority that have equal rights and protections as in any democracy. Israeli Arabs have five political parties and holds seats in the Israeli Parliament.”
Katzman closes this withering email by noting the “incredible social service work” that the JCC and UJA do for Jews and non-Jews who are “struggling” in Toronto, including children, immigrants, and the poor:
I didn’t realize that the relevance of all of these social services were conditional on whether or not the agencies were involved in Palestine solidarity movements. Do you mind directing me to WHERE it is stated on the social work website that being involved in an agency was conditional to solidarity with the Palestinian movement? (A copy and pasted link would be fine please).”
It’s a superb closing to a blistering missive. But the clincher was no doubt mentioning in the last line that she’d informed the JCC and UJA—and had set up an appointment with President Levy.
That’s when Kristie Wright—Bain’s boss—herself wrote back indicating that “misinformed information” had been provided to her. Bain also responded by noting that the school doesn’t in fact require that agencies “align with Palestinian solidarity movements” in order for them to be considered as placement partners.
Ryerson Administrators Respond, University Releases a Statement
Sue-Ann Levy of the Toronto Sun notes that she tried to reach the dean, Wright, and Bain for comment. She also writes that she contacted the university’s director of Human Rights, who ended up meeting with Katzman in President Levy’s place on September 16, 2015.
None of them replied to her phone calls or emails (I also attempted to contact Bain for comment, but received only an automated out-of-office reply to my email).
Michael Forbes, Ryerson’s group director of communications, did get back to Levy though. He reportedly insisted in an email last Friday that the School of Social Work took a “quick, thorough and responsive action on this matter”, claiming too that Bain apologized immediately and corrected the information.
He also states that Ryerson is “proud of its strong history” of placing students in a diverse range of institutions, including the Prosserman JCC.
But Forbes reportedly “refused to say” whether Bain was disciplined and his sense of the timeline doesn’t jive with the email trail: according to the emails, Katzman only received an apology on September 9—two weeks after her initial email to Bain and only after she had mentioned setting up a meeting with the university’s President.
The statement released on Monday May 29 also contradicts Katzman’s claim that at no time was she ever offered the opportunity to be placed at either Jewish agency (the statement says: “We offered to place the student at the agency she originally requested”). In fact, the ordeal discouraged her from wanting to request a Jewish type of placement in her fourth year at the university too: “I didn’t want to go through that (same) emotional stress.”
The full Ryerson statement, posted onto the School of Social Work website, can be found here.
Ryerson statement regarding Toronto Sun coverage of the School of Social Work
Date: May 29, 2017
You may have read a recent Toronto Sun article regarding allegations against the School of Social Work. We are writing to the Ryerson community to provide further details and clarification which we had also provided the Toronto Sun prior to publication.
We want to assure the community that Ryerson University and the School of Social Work took quick, thorough, and responsive action on this matter.
As soon as the student’s concern with the August 25, 2015 email from the field education coordinator was brought to our attention, the manager of the field education office immediately contacted the student. Within the week, the field education coordinator corrected the information she had previously provided, apologized, and offered a meeting with the student to address any of the student’s questions and concerns. We also offered to place the student at the agency she originally requested.
The AVP of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the Executive Director from the President’s Office also met with the student.
We confirm that Prosserman JCC and UJA are appropriate agencies to be considered for placement opportunities for Ryerson School of Social Work students, that Ryerson has worked with the Prosserman JCC and has had students placed there in the past, and that the Ryerson School of Social Work expects this relationship will continue into the future. We want to reassure social work students that they can and should continue to request preferred settings and populations as part of their field education.
Each year, Ryerson successfully places many Social Work students at a diverse range of institutions, agencies, and organizations, including the Prosserman JCC, and we are proud of this history. We remain committed to the intentional and ongoing engagement of equity, diversity and inclusion in community engagement, learning, teaching, and research to support our richly diverse community.
Exclusive Statements from StandWithUs Canada and Rebecca Katzman
In her remarks to the Toronto Sun, Meryle Lee Kates, executive director of StandWithUS Canada, called what happened to Katzman an “abuse of podium”:
There is a zeitgeist about intersectionality and white privilege…This is a hijacked version of social justice that is anti-Semitic. If you can’t go to work for a Jewish organization doing good work, something is wrong with that.”
But Kates was more optimistic about Ryerson’s trajectory with regard to Jewish students and the local Jewish community in an emailed comment provided to LI:
This incident happened two years ago prior to the new administration, which we are pleased to note has been more responsive to the concerns of Jewish students. We are confident that President Lachemi will address this issue. We are very proud of Rebecca who bravely confronted anti-Semitism in the hope that it will create a better environment in the School of Social Work at Ryerson and inspire others to stand up for what they believe in.”
Katzman, the graduating social worker who courageously called out an egregious case of anti-Jewish bias and bigotry, is less sanguine. Here’s Katzman’s statement exclusive for LI:
The advice I would give to Jewish and pro-Israel students is to speak out when they are feeling discriminated against. No student should ever have to worry about their religious beliefs impacting their grades, but unfortunately it is the reality today. I am unsure if Heather Bain, of Ryerson U’s placement office, was held accountable for her actions. I do not know of any other students who were placed at either the UJA or Prosserman JCC. I was only offered anti-Israel placements as a substitute for organizations of the Jewish Federation.
I felt targeted because could you ever imagine this scenario happening to students of different faiths or ethnicities? Do you think that any other minority would be prevented from holding a placement at an organization of their choice? At Ryerson, many of us believed that this treatment was reserved for Jewish students. Yes, I do feel that this incident changed my overall experience on campus for the two years remaining in my faculty. I understood that there was a sentiment that singled me out, and that I was being targeted for being Jewish.
I’d advise students to follow administration policy if they are feeling vulnerable for any reason, and to be sure that they take advantage of the resources of the organizations that are there to support them, because faculty members should be as accountable for their code of conduct as students are. I think it is important for students of all backgrounds to stand against bigotry and discrimination. For faculty to discriminate against students because of their religious, ethnic or political affiliation is wrong. I chose to make my story public in the hope that this issue will be properly dealt with and that all students feel they can have a voice even when people in positions of power are trying to shut it down.”
Bain did not respond to a request for comment.
Nearly two years ago, a group of anti-Israel, BDS-supporting faculty at Ryerson University managed to convince their ill-informed colleague that a Toronto Jewish community center and the United Jewish Appeal weren’t sufficiently anti-Israel to serve as suitable partner agencies for progressive, social work placements.
But this nastiness only came to light on account of the remarkable tenacity and determination of an undergraduate student, and the incriminating chain of emails that she generated.
In that sense, what happened at Ryerson is reminiscent of an incident on my campus last year when a faculty member in the Religious Studies Department dis-invited an award winning Israeli NYU Professor and filmmaker from a campus event out of fear of offending the political sensibilities of her BDS-supporting colleagues (see our prior posts covering this story of self-censorship).
Like at Ryerson, the boycotting at Syracuse University took place behind the scenes and under the radar screen. There too, the shameful decision to deny students with a valuable educational opportunity was publicly exposed only because the discrimination was well-documented in writing.
Still, despite the similarities, to my mind the Ryerson case is much worse.
At Syracuse, BDS faculty activism on campus meant that one Israeli filmmaker was prevented from screening his film at a university-hosted conference (he eventually did screen it on my campus last month). But at Ryerson two entire local Jewish organizations were written off of an academic program because of the anti-Israel animus of a small group of professors.
Bottom line: What happened at Ryerson to Rebecca Katzman is a disturbing example of how BDS is corrupting academia. The case highlights how its virulent anti-Israel hatred is increasingly becoming a gateway to more blatant forms of antisemitism.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman