B’nai Brith and Wiesenthal Center squabble over letter to U of T

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

There’s a little bit of friction developing between a couple of organizations mandated to promote the Jewish community’s interests when it comes to addressing discrimination.

It arises out of an effort by several organizations to stand with professors from the University of Toronto who want the university administration to take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism.

A coalition of groups endorsed an open letter from the professors to University of Toronto president Meric Gertler, but one group, Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC), broke with the others and issued its own news release one day before the letter was publicized, annoying B’nai Brith Canada.

B’nai Brith is accusing FSWC of misleading the public and appropriating the intellectual property of others in a bid to take credit for an effort to urge the University of Toronto to address anti-Semitism on campus.

In a Feb. 27 letter to the Wiesenthal Center, acquired by The CJN, B’nai Brith’s chief executive officer Michael Mostyn said he is disappointed in FSWC for attempting to get ahead of multi-agency plan to coordinate the release of an open letter to Gertler and taking credit for working with faculty to address discrimination against Jews on campus.

“Your presentation of B’nai Brith Canada’s and others’ work product and concept as those of FSWC is untrue and misleading,” Mostyn wrote.

Several organizations backing professors at the university, took part in meetings to align a strategy, agreed to the contents of the letter and agreed that the letter would not include any “organizational branding” while being released simultaneously by the coalition groups, Mostyn says.

Instead, FSWC issued a news release one day before the letter was to be released in which it ignores the other organizations that were part of the coalition. “The FSWC statement links to our coalition’s letter, with no acknowledgment of its source, posted under FSWC branding. As you are aware, this letter was in fact penned by B’nai Brith with input from the faculty members and certain other coalition members. FSWC offered no constructive suggestions to this letter, although it was invited to do so. Once again, FSWC previously committed at the coalition meetings to refrain from posting our coalition letter under any organizational branding. FSWC has clearly misled the public into believing that the contents of the statement and our coalition’s letter are your organization’s original work,” Mostyn wrote in a letter to Avi Benlolo, chief executive officer of the FSWC.

“Contrary to your professional and ethical obligations to be ever mindful of the greater good of the community, FSWC violated the terms of our understanding, and implied credit for both the letter and the community initiative. FSWC did so even at risk of putting at peril the efforts of a community that had entrusted you with a duty of care,” Mostyn wrote in the letter.

The dispute between the organizations is a sideshow to an effort by University of Toronto professors, largely from the school’s dentistry and medicine faculties, to call on Gertler to address anti-Semitism on campus. The professors began their campaign after a spokesperson at the University of Toronto Graduate Students Union said it would not endorse a move by Hillel to bring kosher food to campus, because of its pro-Israel position.

The professors say that is one part of a larger problem of anti-Semitism at the university, in which Jewish students feel intimidated by anti-Israel groups and campaigns.

In November, they called on Gertler to meet with them and adopt the definition of anti-Semitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, which would give the school the tools needed to shut down anti-Semitic activities on campus.

The professors attempted to broaden their clout by co-operating with a number of Jewish organizations, including B’nai Brith and FSWC.

An open letter to Gertler, released on Feb. 27, is endorsed by a coalition of Jewish organizations, including Hasbara Fellowships Canada, the Alpha Epsilon Pi student fraternity (AEPi), Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation (CAEF), Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR), Alpha Omega Toronto dental fraternity, Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA) and B’nai Brith.

FSWC, however, published a news release on Feb. 26, acknowledging the work of professors Stuart Kamenetsky and Howard Tenenbaum and other faculty members, “in conjunction with FSWC in petitioning the U of T administration to adopt and implement the universal definition of anti-Semitism, as outlined by the IHRA, in order to address discrimination against Jews on campus.”

Commenting on the dispute, Kamenetsky stated, “The various organizations have their terms of references, missions and agendas. We are pleased that FSWC is supporting our cause by promoting our letter on their website. We respect all organizations’ decisions and choices as to whether or not to directly endorse the letter. In the end, this letter is from U of T faculty to its administration. We are very grateful for B’nai Brith’s leadership in supporting this and are thankful for any support we receive from any other organization or the media.”

Neither B’nai Brith nor FSWC responded to requests for comment.