The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said it’s “a slap in the face” that one-third of York University president’s advisory committee on inclusion – formed in March in response to a controversy over a pro-Palestinian mural on campus – is made up of faculty who are on record as being anti-Israel.
In January, Toronto businessman Paul Bronfman made headlines when he announced he would withdraw financial support for the university’s film and creative programs after the school said it had no jurisdiction to remove a mural in York’s student centre that he considered anti-Semitic.
The controversy surrounding the mural also highlighted longstanding complaints about anti-Israel and anti-Semitic tensions at the university.
Soon after, York president Mamdouh Shoukri announced he would form an advisory committee to “ensure inclusive respectful exchange of ideas, particularly on social and political issues.”
The committee, whose membership was announced March 29, consists of 16 York academics and administrators, about one-third of whom Jewish groups say are anti-Israel.
“I think it’s ludicrous the president of the university would expect Jewish students to engage with such a committee,” Hillel Ontario CEO Marc Newburgh said.
“How could a sizable portion of the inclusion committee consist of members who have a clear record of anti-Israel activism?” he asked. “They couldn’t find other members of the university community who had no position on Israel?”
Sara Lefton, CIJA’s greater Toronto vice-president, said it’s “unimaginable” that a faculty member such as John Greyson – a former member of the defunct group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, as well as a filmmaker who withdrew his film from the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009 to protest its spotlight on Tel Aviv that year – would be asked to sit on the committee.
Other members who have expressed anti-Israel views include Faisal Bhabha, a law professor who spoke at an Israeli Apartheid Week event at Ryerson University, and liberal arts professors Saeed Rahnema and Narda Razack, both of whom support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“This was supposed to be what brought students together and made Jewish students feel safe, but it really is outrageous that this inclusion committee would consist of the some of the worst, most vocal anti-Israel activists at the university,” Lefton said.
“We’re at a point now where the Jewish community’s frustration and anger with York University is quickly reaching a boiling point. We’re looking at this committee, and it really is a slap in the face to the community… this is something that is going to cause more division. It is going to make our students feel even more unsafe, it is going to further anti-Israel environment on campus, but really, it’s becoming more and more clear that York isn’t interested in fostering an inclusive environment for its students, and that is the most difficult thing for our community.”
Also on the committee are Carl Ehrlich, director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies; history of science professor Bernie Lightman; and Lorne Sossin, dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
In January, Sossin responded to the mural controversy with a post on York’s website that said although he was “a proud member of York University’s community and the Jewish community… [no one] should be able to unilaterally declare the views of others in our community as ‘hate’ and call on the university to censor them.”
York spokesperson Janice Walls said the university is “disappointed” by CIJA’s decision to express “outrage” about the committee members, adding that “our policies do not support BDS or divestment from specific categories of companies… It is not in the mandate of the inclusion committee to discuss BDS.”
But Newburgh said Jewish students have had enough with the anti-Israel climate on campus. “I don’t know why this is such a difficult thing for the university to understand why I would be outraged, why Jewish students would be outraged and why the Jewish community would be outraged.”
Bhabha said he did not see the connection between a member’s political opinion about Israel and their ability to sit on an inclusion committee.
“My opinion about BDS is irrelevant and doesn’t entitle anyone to be ‘outraged’ about my inclusion on an inclusion committee that nobody knows really anything about yet. The outrage appears driven more by bigotry and fear-mongering than reasoned objection,” Bhabha said.
Rahnema agreed that his support for the BDS movement shouldn’t be a factor.
“Being critical of the policies of the Israeli government should not lead to misplaced ‘outrage.’ BDS has diverse support, including among many Israeli and Jewish communities who are worried about the worsening situation there,” he said.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal for Holocaust Studies president and CEO Avi Benlolo also expressed doubts about the committee’s composition.
“It is clear that this new advisory committee will do little to reassure York’s Jewish students that the university administration is acting in good faith and in their interests, or that they can expect a positive outcome from its work. This really is a missed opportunity,” he said.