UofT anti-Semitic Student Union a wake up call for Canada

Convocation Hall, University of Toronto.
Convocation Hall, University of Toronto.

It came as no surprise to me the news report that was released earlier this week that the Graduate Student Union (GSU) of the University of Toronto (UofT), Canada’s Ivy League School, is attempting to ban kosher food. As written in a previous article here on the blog, as a graduate student at the UofT’s Munk School of Global Affairs in 2011 I was sent by Hillel, along with a several other Jewish students, to fight against a pro BDS resolution to boycott Israel. The meeting, which demonized Zionism and the Jewish people more generally could have been taken out of a neo Nazi rally. We are a gang of people out to destroy another nation, Palestinians, believe in apartheid and ethnic superiority, and think we are superior and control everyone else. The words exchanged there still echo in my mind from the shock of what I experienced.

The following year, the GSU passed a resolution supporting BDS.

The decisions of the GSU seem to go against Canada’s multicultural ethos and its current working definition of anti-Semitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, adopted by Canada in 2019 as part of its anti-racism strategy, defines anti-Semitism as:  a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. Guidelines attached to the definition, as reported by the Canadian Jewish News , include making “mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing or stereotypical allegations about Jews,” and “denying Jews their right to self-determination by claiming that Israel is a racist endeavour.”

While the new working definition is a step in the right direction, it fails to take into account Canadian civil society, especially related to college campuses, and support found therein for the BDS movement. The Canadian Federation of Students passed a resolution supporting BDS in 2018.

The University of Toronto is Canada’s elite. It is here where some of the best professionals graduate. I still remember walking down toward Convocation Call. A former Deputy Prime Minister, whose son was in my program, was there to greet all of us. Janice Stein, a popular Canadian news analyst and my program director, reflected on how we will become representatives of the program from all over the world, with me specifically being Israel (this was before I made Aliyah). Most of my early journalism for the Jewish community of Toronto also took place while studying at the University.

However, it is also at the UofT that the notorious pro BDS Israel Apartheid Week started. It was here that in 2005, the first Israel Apartheid Week took place. To organize this event, anti Israel elements adopted the BDS movement’s comparison to Apartheid South Africa, calling Israel a colonialist, imperialist state and urging its complete boycott. Major demonstrations against Israel regularly take place in Toronto, with UofT along with York University being venues for showcasing anti-Israel speakers. While it is also true that pro Israel speakers are presented on these campuses, it is frequently a hot battleground, with often the large Jewish populations either feeling besieged or taking more neutral stances on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

UofT, like many other campuses in Canada and the United States is also home to a “politically correct” culture.  It is here where one must watch ever so carefully what one says about Israel in public. When I was a student one could not say pro Israel statements without heavy criticism from other classmates. Any pro Israel statement had to be contrasted with one in support of the Palestinians. If Israel was singled out, there must have been a very good reason. Few understood the country’s survivalist tendencies. Everything is fair, and if Israel is singled out, it must be doing something wrong.

Being a Zionist, I was left with few friends from my years there.

The dynamics of the campus expose a long time civil society trend, and not a favorable one, toward pro Israel expression at the University of Toronto. While this trend is not unique to Toronto, being the flagship university of Canada in terms of rankings, it is a matter that should be taken seriously.

One can claim that it is simply a student body, a student issue, and therefore irrelevant. Afterall, the vast majority of the faculty and program directors are supportive or at least neutral about Israel. As one Board of Directors member who shall remain anonymous told me, “No one cares what GSU thinks and the colleges and food trucks feed students…there will be kosher option everywhere if there’s a demand”. However, this opinion dismisses the civic society of the University campus.  Can pro Israel Jewish students feel at peace at the University?  Can one talk about Israel freely without harassment?

This opinion piece should be a wake-up call to the University’s Board of Directors and others, some that still very much care about Israel. It is also a wakeup call to Canada as a whole. One should not allow these displays of anti Semitism to continue. The pervasive anti Israel undertone of the campus at a civic society level not only goes against the spirit of Canada’s new definition of anti-Semitism, it is interfering with the university’s ability to truly be an ivory tower of research into finding genuine solutions toward the pressing issues regarding Israel.

Maybe it is also time for Canada to outlaw BDS as a whole, a stance taken today by 27 US States?

I am very proud to be a graduate of the University and believe the campus should play a role in policy analysis toward issues in the Middle East. However, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist expression and its articulation in the form of BDS remain a real problem and there should be a far more combative discussion on what to do about it.

About the Author
Born in Israel but raised in Canada, Gil Lewinsky worked as a journalist in Jewish newspapers including the Jerusalem Post after completing a Masters degree at the Munk School of Global Affairs from the University of Toronto. He also has a LLM in International Law from Lancaster University in the UK. His past topics include a book written about the Status of Gaza under International Law soon after its conquest by Hamas in 2007. He is perhaps best known as one of two people that brought a flock of Jacob Sheep from Canada to Israel in 2016, making history. He currently works as a teacher and public relations professional in Israel.
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