A speech by Irwin Cotler on Holocaust Remembrance Day provoked charges of anti-Palestinian racism and antisemitism at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine

Screenshot from Irwin Cotler’s social media message on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2022.

A speech by Irwin Cotler to the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine on Holocaust Remembrance Day has spurred angry recriminations and two open letters to the acting dean of the medical school.

Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, was invited by the medical school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to discuss “Contemporary Antisemitism” on Jan.26.

A letter to Acting Dean Patricia Houston, signed by 45 faculty members, charged that the event “reinforced anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing and erasure of Palestinian voices.”

The event also undermined the university’s Anti-Semitism Working Group, which recently released a report recommending, among other things, that UofT not adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, the letter stated. All of the report’s recommendations were accepted by the university.

Students and faculty who speak up in support of “Palestinian life and liberation” face harassment and “calls into the office” to discuss their personal social media presence, the letter writers state and they ask the medical school to confront the rise of anti-Palestinian racism on campus.

Meanwhile, a letter signed by over 300 Jewish faculty members disputes these charges, arguing the letter-writers have engaged in “falsehoods, twisted logic and antisemitic rhetoric.”

Dr. Frank Sommers

Dr. Frank Sommers, co-founder of Doctors Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (DARA), who spearheaded the letter to the dean said in an interview with The CJN that “none of what professor Irwin (Cotler) said consists of anti-Palestinian racism, so they’re twisting the truth.”

“Their attack was not only on Professor Cotler. It was an attack on Jewish faculty members and the Jewish community,” Sommers wrote in a cover letter to the dean.

Cotler’s discussion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism was within university policy which has not banned teaching about or discussion of the definition, even though UofT has not adopted it, the letter from the Jewish faculty members states.

Portraying Cotler’s defence of Jews as “anti-Palestinian racism” perpetuates “an antisemitic tradition of accusing Jews who defend themselves as erasing the voices and suppressing the lives of others,” the letter continues.

“Their letter is an example of the very antisemitism that Mr. Cotler dismantled in his presentation.”  

Sommers says he has yet to receive a response from the dean’s office to the letter, which was submitted March 7, but he anticipates he will.

“The dean and the faculty of medicine will not ignore over 300 Jewish faculty members, many of whom are quite senior,” he said. “We anticipate there will be a backlash from them (the critics of Cotler’s speech) as well.”

He hopes the letter and the experience of the 300 signatories will spur the faculty of medicine to redouble its efforts to educate students about antisemitism.

“I believe the faculty will become more aware there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs with respect to fighting antisemitism in the university and in the faculty of medicine,” Sommers said.

Antisemitic behaviours have been increasing on campus and in teaching hospitals, but have been largely ignored or whitewashed, he said.

“In my 50 years of association with the faculty of medicine and the University of Toronto I have not seen this level of anti-Jewish hatred that has manifested in the recent past.”