Canadian university students told a parliamentary committee about antisemitism on campus—and a failure by schools to act

University students told a House of Commons committee that the schools they attend are consistently refusing to enforce their own codes of conduct, and are failing to protect them from antisemitism.

At a May 9 hearing of the justice and human rights committee investigating antisemitism on campuses, MPs from all parties heard from students, a Hillel director and a Montreal lawyer about how the climate has changed since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza.

“Jewish students in Montreal have been intimidated by hateful posters glorifying violence and terrorism and protesters chanting for the destruction of our ancestral homeland,” Nicole Nashen, a law student at McGill University, told the committee.

Nashen cited a social media post from campus clubs at McGill and Concordia that was issued on Oct. 8 praising the Hamas attacks as “heroic.”

“These are the same groups that have been organizing the campus protests and the current encampment at McGill University. They have not tried to hide their hateful and antisemitic intent, rather our universities have chosen to turn a blind eye rather than stand up for their Jewish students,” she said.

“The consistent failure of our universities to take action against the hate taking place on our campuses has emboldened anti-Israel activists to become more radical. Our universities must take a stand and where they fail to adequately protect their Jewish students, they must be held accountable,” she told MPs.

Mount Royal MP Anthony Housefather initiated the hearings, after watching politicians in the United States Congress grill university presidents about the turmoil on their campuses.

The Canadian committee is also investigating Islamophobia on campus, and will ultimately present recommendations to the House of Commons.

“Because most of the issues on university campuses are the responsibility of university administrators and fall under provincial jurisdiction and it is municipal police that would be involved, as at McGill’s request to deal with the encampment we would need to be making recommendations to other levels of government and the universities in most cases,” Housefather said in an email to The CJN.

The committee will hold two more meetings and expects to hear from community organizations, Deborah Lyons, the special envoy on combatting antisemitism, police and university administrators, although this has not been confirmed, Housefather said.  

“I wanted to give a voice to the Jewish Canadians who are having the worst struggle against antisemitism today, our students on campus,” Housefather said. “I believe most Canadians are good and bringing their concerns and experiences before the country at Parliamentary hearings gives this national attention and will pressure universities to take action.”

Students spoke about physical assaults on campus, seeing their friends wear baseball caps to cover their kippahs and hearing hateful remarks from their professors.

Universities have their own codes of conduct, but have been unwilling to enact consequences for students who breach them, students said.

“For the last week-and-a-half I received an email from McGill University every single day saying there was an illegal encampment on our university, having said that, a-week-and-a-half later, it’s still there,” Nashen said.

Pro-Palestinian encampments have been set up at several campuses across the country and are currently occupying the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia.

In some cases, Jewish student groups have been unable to hold events on campus. A Concordia group that had invited three IDF reservists to speak was forced to hold the meeting off-campus and were stuck inside a Jewish community building for four hours, due to protests outside, Michael Eshayek, an Israeli student studying at Concordia University, said.

A student club that supports Israel had wanted to show a movie about the massacre at the Nova music festival but was told they would have to pay $500 for private security.

Eshayek also said he was filmed after he went to see the protest encampment at McGill. The video received 100,000 views and encouraged viewers to file complaints with immigration that would jeopardize his student visa. In the end, he had to hire private security, he told the committee.

Describing his visit to the McGill encampment, he said: “A bunch of jihadists came and said ‘go back to Europe, go back to Europe.’ I said my family is from Iraq, so they said ‘go back to Iraq.’ I said, ‘unfortunately, I can’t go back to Iraq.’ I felt threatened and excluded,” he said in response to a question from Housefather.

Nati Pressmann, a student at Queen’s University and the founder of a new organization, the Canadian Union of Jewish Students, said she regularly hears from students that they are shuffled from one administrator to the next when they have complaints.

“By the time they are told to go meet with the right person, it’s apparently too late to deal with that incident. It’s very similar to what we are hearing across the country, where Jewish students are feeling unsafe, and when they try to use university support, they’re not helped at all.”

Antisemitism on campus takes three main forms; harassment; physical and symbolic acts; and disqualification and exclusion, said Yos Tarshis, director of Hillel at Queen’s, who spoke on behalf of Hillels across Canada.

Exclusion is the “most pernicious form of antisemitism”, as evidenced by the encampment movement’s call to remove all representations of Zionism from campus, he said.

“The mask has slipped- we’ve gone from ‘we need a ceasefire’ to ‘Hillel must be removed from campus, because Hillel is a Zionist, cultural institution,’” he said.

Teaching assistants at York University were given instructional materials by their union that, among other things, called for Hillel to be removed from campus, he said.

Tarshis said he has good relations with administration at Queen’s, but he often tells them they are not doing enough to protect students.

“I hear from colleagues that often administrators are friendly, they want to help, but no one knows what to do and it shows.”