Student union backtracks on rejection of pro-Israel group

Lauren Isaacs, right, educating a fellow York University student about Zionism in the Vari Link hallway on campus on Oct. 7.

The York Federation of Students (YFS) has reversed its previous decision to reject granting club status to a pro-Israel student group at York University in Toronto.

On Oct. 10, YFS rejected Herut Canada’s application for club status, though no reasons were given. But Lauren Isaacs, the director of Herut Canada, said she has now received an email from YFS saying that it will recognize the organization as a legitimate student group.

“This is a bittersweet moment,” Isaacs told The CJN. “I appreciate that we are now ratified. However, we have as yet still not been told why we were rejected in the first place. This explanation is long overdue and remains unacceptable.”

YFS did not respond to requests for comment, while Yanni Dagonas, York University’s acting chief spokesperson, responded to queries from The CJN saying: “The Herut Zionist club is a recognized club of York University. They were approved by the University’s Centre for Student Community & Leadership Development (SCLD) on June 25, 2019. The York Federation of Students is an independent legal entity with its own policies, processes and decisions. We understand that the YFS has now ratified the club.”

The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) lobbied on behalf of Herut Canada and filed a freedom of information request, asking for access to the documentation related to the decision to reject Herut Canada’s bid for club status.

“I remain optimistic that the university administration wants a positive direction. However, my concern regarding YFS remains unabated,” said Avi Benlolo, the president and CEO of FSWC. “Given this episode in concert with an unprovoked attack on a Jewish student who was tabling pro-Israel material, the university must aggressively counter anti-Semitism and integrate FSWC’s tolerance training programs in its administration and the federation of students.”

Benlolo said FSWC had been alerted to the initial rejection of Herut Canada and had engaged in an “aggressive advocacy effort” against the decision. This included raising the issue in a meeting last month with York University’s president, Rhonda Lenton.

Isaacs, a 23-year-old history student, said she had applied for club status on behalf of Herut Canada at the start of the school year in September. The SCLD had already ratified Herut as a recognized club on campus, but YFS turned down its application without giving any reasons, though it suggested that Herut team up with Chabad or Hasbara on campus, she said.

“I replied that this is unacceptable.… We’re not Chabad or synagogue affiliated,” she said. “We have different mandates and ideas.”

Isaacs said that, “They gave us no information or criteria that we failed to meet… It’s quite transparent that denying club status because they’re following an anti-Israel agenda.”

Isaacs said YFS ratification is important because it provides rooms for events, offers modest financial subsidies and is required to participate in York Fest, a club festival that takes place at the start of the school year.

“It’s a credibility thing,” she added.

Isaacs said her meeting with university officials to try to resolve the issue was “very unsatisfactory.… The most they offered was a safe space.”

Isaacs said pro-Israel students associated with Herut Canada faced intimidation and verbal abuse when it set up an information table at the university on Oct. 7. Dozens of anti-Israel students harassed anyone who came up to the table.

“It was mostly verbal abuse and profanity,” she said. Things got so bad that campus security had to be called in.

“Jewish students were intimidated. They’re scared. This is why they can’t be Jewish on campus,” she said.

Referencing the same event, Benlolo said video showed a Jewish student being spat on.

Jewish students “are keeping their heads down,” he said. “If students are not feeling free to express themselves, it’s against the notion of freedom of speech. That’s a very big concern, which is why this university has lost thousands of Jewish students who will no longer go there.”

Benlolo said that despite YFS backtracking on its earlier decision, FSWC will not withdraw its freedom of Information application.