Madeleine Ferris

Toronto’s Re-colonisation of Academia

Over the past few months of the Israel-Gaza war, there has been a rise in anti-Israel rhetoric on university campuses from students and professors alike. Oddly, this most recent opposition to Israel is rooted in decolonial theory. At the University of Toronto (UofT), a series of recent events have attempted to use this theory to erase Jewish links to the land, promote distorted interpretations of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and refer to Israel as a colonial endeavour, all of which are readily used to justify the expulsion of Jews from the region. By falsely labelling Israelis as foreign colonial oppressors and Palestinians as natives subject to colonisation, these academics are perpetuating an age-old trend of unwanted exceptionalism, reserved exclusively for Jews.

In November 2023, UofT’s Equality Studies Student Union organised an event discussing ‘Palestinian Occupation Resistance’ which included three professors whose research focused on comparative settler colonialisms and indigeneity. A cursory glance at these professors’ works reveals the adoption of a narrative which frequently refers to Jews in the Levant as ‘colonisers.”  

Similarly, on 12th November 2023, the University of Toronto hosted Islamic scholar and public speaker Mohammed Hijab, discussing ‘Palestine and the Muslim Sleeping Giant’. At several points in his lecture, Hijab accused Israel of settler-colonialism and denied Jewish heritage and ethnic roots in the land. 

Another “decolonial” event was presented by the Equity Forum, hosting Professor Tarik Aougab, discussing the decolonization of mathematics in relation to Palestine. The forum was created in 2021 to provide a stage to “discuss how systems of oppression (including… settler colonialism and western imperialism…) produce inequity and exclusion.” The ideas espoused at all three of these UofT events rely on a complete and unjustified denial of Jewish heritage and ethnic roots in the land. 

Describing Jews as colonial settlers is inaccurate and exhibits a failure to understand both Jewish history and colonialism as a concept. In its broadest sense, colonialism refers to instances where a foreign imperial power acquires external control over indigenous inhabitants. Jewish identity is based on both a religion as well as an ethnicity indigenously linked to the region; Jews have been expelled from the land multiple times throughout their history, most recently in 70 CE by the Romans. However, there has been a continued  Jewish presence in Israel for the last 3000 years, with varying degrees of freedom and autonomy. 

A more accurate analysis of Jewish history would acknowledge the creation of Israel as a decolonial response to the British imperialism of the Mandate of Palestine. Considering the long history of imperial colonisation of Israel, most recently by the Ottoman and British empires, the 1947 UN partition plan allowed for the self-determination of its Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants, freeing them of British colonial authority. 

Offering this right to both peoples should be considered a pivotal moment in anti-colonial history. Irrespective of the resulting war imposed on Israel by its Arab neighbours, and the ensuing conflict engulfing the region, the Jewish right to a land is a fulfilment of self-determination. Describing indigenous people as an imperial power is baseless and a non-sequitur. One may legitimately critique current Israeli policies and advocate for Palestinian rights without labelling Zionism and Jewish residency in the land as colonialism. 

Earlier in October, a letter had been widely shared by Canadian professors arguing that critiquing scholars “who support the Palestinian struggle, has a chilling effect on the academic freedom of our members in the classroom.” They go on to specifically reject the IHRA definition of antisemitism, claiming that it can be used to “censor critical and engaged scholarship,” and that it penalises those who argue that Israeli policies are racist and undemocratic. Not only do these arguments misrepresent the text and intent of IHRA, but they tacitly promote the falsehood that Jewish and Palestinian self-determination are mutually exclusive. 

Zionism does not negate Palestinian self-determination.The IHRA document specifically mentions that it cannot be used to censor critiques of Israel that would be inappropriate when directed at any other country.  However, claiming that “the existence of the state of Israel is inherently a racist endeavour” is antisemitic, since it precludes Jews from enjoying basic human rights. The right to self-determination of ‘peoples’ is heralded in the UN charter; scholars promoting the view that Jews should not exercise this right are expressing a dubious form of exceptionalism and discrimination.

The tangible impact of legitimising these arguments is keenly felt by Jewish students on campus. Samantha Kline, a Jewish University of Toronto graduate and current OCAD student described her current university experience as “mentally draining… the institution fails to address underlying problems in its structure, leading to a daily escalation of antisemitism.” Antisemitism is rife across Toronto campuses, frequently motivated by this underlying decolonial denial of the right for Jewish self-determination. This culture of erasing Jewish history on campuses has led Jewish students to feel unsafe, and their rights unrecognised.

While freedom of thought is a core tenet of academic rigour and analysis, it should never come at the expense of student safety or inclusion of ethnic identities. Expressions of anti-Israel decolonial theory is a clear inversion of its core principle of acknowledging indigenous peoples rights, where it instead has become a tool to oppress a native people. Presenting Palestinians as the sole indigenous nation to the land is disingenuous, and perpetuates the perception that Jewish indigenous rights are an impediment to the move for Palestinian liberation, rather than equally legitimate. Ignoring the existence of an indigenous people to serve the political ends of another is inconsistent with the theory, legal norms and rational senses of justice, and must be eradicated from decolonial theory.

About the Author
Madeleine was born in England and moved to Israel after completing her undergraduate degree at both King’s College London and University of Toronto. She is now studying for her Masters degree at the Hebrew University in Human Rights and Transitional Justice.