Academics calling for support in bid to address anti-Semitism at U of T

University of Toronto (bobistraveling/flickr/CC BY 2.0)

A group of Jewish academics based largely in the University of Toronto’s dentistry and medical schools are reaching out to other faculty in a bid to increase the pressure on the school’s administration to take concrete steps to address anti-Semitism on campus.

A group calling itself “Concerned University of Toronto Faculty Members,” supported by a coalition of Jewish organizations, is circulating an open letter to Prof. Maric Gertler, president of the university, and Claire Kennedy, the Lieutenant-Governor in Council Member, urging them to adopt the definition of anti-Semitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

They are hoping to attract the support of current and past faculty members at the University of Toronto and present it to Gertler when they meet with him in March, said Stuart Kamenetsky, a professor in the school’s psychology department and a member of the faculty committee who are spearheading the initiative.

“We’re trying to get 400 signatures. We really want to push on this one,” Kamenetsky said.

The letter calls on the university to adopt “concrete goals” to address anti-Semitism on campus, particularly “adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in full and as policy.”

“Flowing from this, the university would have every right, if not the obligation, to face down the University of Toronto Graduate Students Union’s (UTGSU) support for BDS as well as its holding of the annual ‘Israel Apartheid Week,’” the letter states.

“For more than a decade, anti-Jewish activity here has risen.

“Jewish students and faculty members have felt increasingly unsafe and unwelcome on our own campuses. Hateful and discriminatory rhetoric against the Jewish community and incitement against our community has gone largely unaddressed. It has often been spread under the umbrella of ‘Israel Apartheid Week (IAW),’ itself a patently anti-Semitic event, which is held on our campuses annually,” the letter states.

The letter is endorsed by a coalition of Jewish organizations, including Hasbara Fellowships Canada, Alpha Epsilon Pi student fraternity (AEPi), Canadian Anti-Semitism Education Foundation (CAEF), Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR), Alpha Omega Toronto dental fraternity, Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA) and B’nai Brith Canada.

Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith, said, “Our community has rallied around this issue, thanks to the tireless efforts of the professors who have taken the initiative to make a difference at their university. We fully expect that the professors’ efforts will translate into a concrete, meaningful and positive change on campus.

“The IHRA definition is a necessary and effective first step in finally putting a stop to the dangerous environment that has been created for students on many campuses in recent years. This is an opportunity for U of T, the birthplace of Israel Apartheid Week, to now become a trailblazer in the fight against the anti-Jewish sentiment that has arisen in its shadow,” Mostyn added.

Kamenetsky said the effort to get the university administration to address anti-Semitism started as an initiative of Jewish faculty, mostly in the medical and dentistry schools, but it has broadened to appeal to other Jewish and non-Jewish academics, current and past, and in other faculties as well.

In addition, receiving the endorsement of a variety of Jewish groups gives the effort more weight, he said.

That mobilization effort took off after The CJN ran a story on Feb. 13 about a the professors’ unhappiness that Gertler had not responded to a letter of concern sent to him in November that was signed by 80 Jewish academics, mostly from the medical and dental faculties.

Two days after the story was published, Gertler reached out to Prof. Howard Tenenbaum, a spokesman for the concerned faculty, offering to hold a meeting, Kamenetsky said.

The professors’ immediate concerns was sparked by a report that the UTGSU would not endorse an effort by Hillel to bring kosher food on campus because of its pro-Israel position, but Kamenetsky suggested that issue was only the tip of the iceberg.

For a long time, Jewish students have been bearing the brunt of the anti-Jewish activities on campus, he said.

“We felt that as adults, the senior faculty has not assumed enough responsibility in supporting them. It’s too much to expect students to fight the battle. Tenured faculty have the right and responsibility to speak up, and haven’t done so enough,” he said.

Since publication of the first letter to Gertler, faculty have heard from students who “felt supported” and who now feel “they can speak up too.”

Beyond giving a boost to students on campus, the faculty committee wants to see the university adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which includes a provision about singling out Israel for disproportionate criticism when other countries get a pass for the same conduct.

That doesn’t mean that Israel can be immune from criticism, Kamenetsky said. “Discussions about Israeli policies are fine. IAW and BDS are not about that. We feel these are sinister anti-Semitic events. They’re not fair conversations about solving the Middle East conflict. BDS is not a solution other than Israel ceasing to be a Jewish state,” he said.

With the IHRA definition in its toolbox, the university administration can move to  “disallow these activities on campus,” he added.