Enabling Intolerance on Campus

Here we go again.

Every year around this time, Israeli Apartheid Week rears its troublesome head with one overriding goal: to demonize and vilify the State of Israel.

This divisive campaign, which originated in Toronto in 2005 and since has taken root in cities and campuses worldwide, sows disunion through a toxic swill of biased propaganda that includes films, lectures and provocative “apartheid walls” meant to depict the Israel-West Bank security barrier.

Its presence on campus turns academic institutions into backdrops for hate and has historically left Jewish and Israeli students feeling targeted in a place where they should otherwise feel safe.

So, the questions remain:

How has this annual hate-fest with a self-described mandate to “to raise awareness of Israel’s apartheid system over the Palestinian people” and “build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement” been able to fester in Canadian cities and universities for more than a decade?

And more broadly, how has the umbrella BDS movement, aimed at bankrupting Israel, found a foothold on campuses more than 9000 km away from Tel Aviv?

As stated in my November op-ed and FSWC’s subsequent report on campus antisemitism, universities have themselves to blame for the brewing culture of antisemitism and anti-Zionism at some of Canada’s most well-known academic institutions.

Hiding behind the veil of free speech, university administration has been reluctant — no, spineless — to confront blatant examples of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hatred playing out at their schools.

In the most disturbing examples of institutionalized bias, IAW and BDS have been emboldened by university faculty members who have endorsed these prejudiced agendas.

Look no further than the faculty and librarians at the University of Toronto who backed the Graduate Student Union’s 2016 petition for the school “to divest its holdings in companies directly profiting from the ongoing military occupation of Palestinian territories” or the York University Faculty Association that endorsed the school’s #YUDivest campaign, which, as I wrote in a 2016 column, is just a rebranded form of BDS.

Rest assured, FSWC is not letting this disturbing trend go unchallenged.

In the past week, I’ve written to the presidents of every Canadian university to express serious concern about IAW being held on campus. In his response, Ryerson President Mohamed Lachemi drew a distinction between student groups, like the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP Ryerson) who are hosting this year’s event, and the university itself adding “Ryerson University condemns anti-Semitism, racism, and all forms of harassment and discrimination and will continue to promote dialogue and education on vital issues such as these.”

While denouncing antisemitism and racism are worthy sentiments, shouldn’t all universities be held to this very obvious standard? Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to absolve the university of accountability for its student groups when these clubs are hosting events, like IAW, on university-owned property!

In my reply to Mr. Lachemi, I outlined multiple recourses the university might take to ensure it stands by its own condemnation of antisemitism; from evaluating speakers and programs for antisemitic content to cautioning students about the possibility of hate crime charges, to hosting Holocaust education and antisemitism awareness events on campus.

It’s an unfortunate reality that hate continues to exist in academic circles, but our staff and volunteers are working tirelessly throughout the year (even as you’re reading this) to prepare students, educators, even law enforcement, to prevent intolerance and counter instances of hate they may encounter at school. It is among the most vital and rewarding work that we do.

But the time is now for our universities to step-up and stop providing a hospitable environment for this anti-Israel and anti-Semitic cancer to spread.

To them, we say: Enough excusing the inexcusable; Enough accepting the unacceptable. Stand-up for your students or you’ll stand for nothing at all.

About the Author
Avi Benlolo is the President and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), a Jewish non-profit human rights organization. Avi is a prominent Canadian human rights activist dedicated to promoting tolerance, freedom, democracy and human rights.
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