York launches review of violent protest at pro-Israel event

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators clash in the halls of York University in Toronto on Nov. 20. (Alex Rose/The CJN)

York University will commission a “comprehensive, independent external review” of last month’s violent clash between supporters of Israel and Palestine.

The review, whose details are to be announced, will also look into how the Nov. 20 event was managed and “any underlying issues that need to be addressed,” according to a Dec. 10 update from Sheila Cote-Meek, the university’s vice-president of equity, people and culture, and Lucy Fromowitz, its vice-provost, students.

Other measures undertaken by York to probe the incident include: an internal investigation by the university’s community safety department that will look at whether individuals or groups violated York’s policies or codes of conduct; creating a working group led by Cote-Meek and Fromowitz to review the university’s policies, including renting on-campus space and guidelines on posters; drafting recommendations on fostering “a respectful climate on campus for the discussion of difficult topics”; and assisting Toronto police in their investigation.

The event, which was organized by Herut Canada at York, featured reservists of the Israel Defence Forces. Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) protested outside the space at Vari Hall. Pro-Israel counter-demonstrators, including members of the Jewish Defence League (JDL), came as well, and the two sides clashed, with reports of violence and anti-Semitic epithets hurled.

The next day, York president and vice-chancellor Rhonda Lenton issued a statement denouncing the “shouting, threats of violence and attempts to intimidate community members.” She said that “external groups” were there “for the sole purpose of fomenting conflict.”

The Dec. 10 update cited four principles that guide the university and that it expects its staff and faculty to uphold. They include safety, “no tolerance for discrimination,” respecting the “right to free speech and the free exchange of ideas” and the “collective and individual responsibility” to uphold these values.

In the wake of last month’s event, the York Federation of Students (YFS) passed a motion saying that it will oppose the appearance of “representatives of the Israeli state” on campus.

The motion “is not in keeping” with York’s principles and values, the recent update said, and it has “created doubts about the commitment of YFS to promoting a safe and inclusive environment for all to learn, express ideas and dissent that is free from harassment, intimidation, disruption or acts of violence.”

York said it expressed its concerns about the motion to YFS. It said YFS has “committed to a process to ‘define the parameters’ of the motion,” though “it is not yet clear to us how parameters might be set to meet the principles that the administration and YFS have committed to.”

The Dec. 10 update said York trusts that YSF will reach out to Jewish student groups by the time classes reconvene on Jan. 6.

Meanwhile, York’s announcement earlier this month that it was suspending the campus chapters of Herut Canada and SAIA pending an investigation into the clash, saying the groups would only be readmitted following a “mutually agreed upon mediated agreement,” prompted a brusquely worded letter to Lenton from Roman Baber, the Progressive Conservative MPP for the riding of York Centre.

Baber said SAIA “engaged in an organized and violent attempt to disrupt an event sanctioned by the university.

“To suspend the victims of SAIA’s violent acts and force them to submit to an agreement as a condition of re-instatement encourages further escalation and hostility toward Jewish students on campus,” Baber wrote in his Dec. 11 letter.

The Nov. 20 event “crossed the line,” wrote Baber, who called on York to apologize to its Jewish population and reinstate Herut Canada. He also called on Lenton to decertify SAIA, among other suggestions.

The latest announcement from York mirrors a request from Amnesty International. In a letter this month, the organization called on Lenton to convene an independent inquiry into the clash, adding that tensions at last month’s event were “exacerbated” by the presence of JDL members. The letter made no mention of whether outside groups accompanied members of SAIA, as some have suggested.

SAIA did not return messages seeking information on whether it had outside parties at the protest.

In a joint statement on Nov. 24, YFS and the Graduate Students’ Association demanded that the university “take immediate action to ensure that known members of the JDL and other organizations that are complicit in violent and harmful behaviour are no longer allowed on our campus.”

In Facebook posts following last month’s event, Isaacs said she “personally appointed a security organizer” who had “connections to certain Jewish motorcycle groups like the Riders of the Covenant and The Deplorables, whose members came out and selflessly protected our community.”

Isaacs said her security organizer also reached out to the JDL, which “sent out a group of guys. We are very grateful to them as they helped keep protesters away from our event, protected the Jewish students and helped to safely escort us home after the event.”

Isaacs told The CJN that her organization felt the need for the Jewish groups to attend “because we knew we would be seriously outnumbered in a violent, unruly, intimidating crowd, which was exactly what happened.”

While campus security and police “were great, their numbers weren’t sufficient. They had to call for backup on that night. We warned them several times beforehand that we would need more officers and they didn’t provide them. I think they underestimated the threat of the protesters.”

The motorcycle groups and JDL “helped keep the crowds apart. They protected us. Thank God they were there,” she said.

Isaacs dismissed concerns that the JDL made tensions worse, saying that the “protesters were going to protest regardless because we were a (pro-)Israel group. And I think they’re trying to use (the presence of outside groups) as an excuse for their violence.”