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Are Jews welcome at the University of Toronto?

A Jewish student can no longer walk the campus, as I once did, entirely free of concerns over anti-Semitism
Buildings at Toronto university main campus. Toronto, Ontario, Canada - September 2, 2016 (iStock)
Buildings at Toronto university main campus. Toronto, Ontario, Canada - September 2, 2016 (iStock)

The University of Toronto is one of the most beautiful parts of the city that surrounds it. While most of Toronto tore down its older buildings and put up ever-taller condominiums, the university at the heart of Canada’s largest city retains all of its original charm, with an enchanting arrangement of older buildings and a few newer ones. When the snow falls, which it inevitably does, the university becomes a breathtaking series of castle-like centers of learning.

I arrived at the University of Toronto at the age of 23, eager to learn as much as possible – first with my masters degree, and then with my doctorate. I found, to my delight, an array of professors who were dedicated to the study of English literature. I found friends and an environment where genuine scholarship was embraced and contested. I found exactly what I was looking for.

At the time, I did not feel that being Jewish was an extremely important part of my identity. I avoided pork, but I did little else to put my Judaism in practice. When I walked across the campus of the university in the winter, I held tightly to the notion that I was being embraced as a scholar. I’m sure I quietly prayed often, but I never felt the need to be particularly Jewish. After all, I was there to study Shakespeare.

On November 14, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, a group to which I once belonged, declared that it would not support the availability of kosher food on campus, ostensibly because kosher food was requested by Hillel, which supports Israel. There have been many articles about the complicated mixture of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on the left, particularly at universities. And there have been as many or more articles that inspire rage of one kind or another. This blog post is neither of these. It is more with a sense of sadness than rage that I say that the Graduate Students’ Union’s decision is, simply put, a purely anti-Semitic gesture, with a reference to Israel operating as a weak and transparent excuse. It is a direct affront to Jewish students, with echoes of a very dark history of such marginalization.

At the University of Toronto, I learned much about the past. I certainly learned that the languages, the social structures, and the hate of our ancestors does not vanish in us – even if we have read a lot of books, and that only the most naïve and dangerous of perspectives could imagine that we have suddenly escaped the snares of history. I must admit that I was innocent in this way. When I saw the beauty of the gothic buildings on campus, and thought carefully about how to imagine Renaissance England, I felt entirely free, entirely untethered to the risk of Jew-hatred, entirely unafraid of being spit on in the street. To be Jewish was simply a treasured part of my heart; I did not take anti-Semitism very seriously.

I see now that I should have, and so should the Graduate Students’ Union – so, indeed, should the left as a whole. In the meantime, I and my fellow Jews must mix the joy and value that we inherit from our tradition with a sobering reminder that the danger of the past remains in our world.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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