Canadian universities have become ‘centres for intolerance,’ law professor Bryan Schwartz says in a new book

University of Manitoba law professor Bryan Schwartz

Canadian universities have become breeding grounds for antisemitism, often concealed within criticism of Israel, creating a hostile environment that has left Jewish and pro-Israel staff and students feeling threatened, harassed, and silenced.

That’s the view of Bryan Schwartz, a law professor at the University of Manitoba and author of the new book Re-enlightening Canada: A Legislative Program for Promoting Open, Democratic and Rational Policymaking.

This issue worsens with each conflict that involves Israel, including the current one, he said, leading to increased isolation and threats against Jewish students.

“Waiting for the problem to resolve itself is not an option. We must act now to ensure that future generations of Jewish children can attend Canadian universities and feel safe, regardless of their faith, identity, or political views,” Schwartz says.

In the book, published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Schwartz traces the problem to universities leaving behind the best traditions of the enlightenment, including free expression, open debate and the “promotion and hiring on the basis of merit, not group identity and ideology.”

What has replaced enlightenment thinking today is “wokeism”, which Schwartz defines as “the notion that almost everything can be explained by group identity,”,instead of being open to free debate about ideas.

At the same time, “wokeism” refuses to accept views considered to be harmful to those perceived as oppressed, he said, referencing the work of David Bernstein in his book Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.

According to this ideology, Jews are seen as privileged because of their economic, cultural and political success—and therefore also as oppressors. This is particularly evident in criticism of Israel, which is seen as an oppressive and apartheid state.

This philosophy has overtaken universities, Schwartz said, turning them “into centres for indoctrination and intolerance, with a specific focus on the increasing targeting of Jews and the Jewish state.”

As he put it in an interview with The CJN, Jews “are not considered proper victims of hate crimes,” but rather as “privileged and oppressors, and Israel is seen as a colonial settler-state.”

In practice, what this means is that the “woke movement hates Israel and is hostile to Jews,” he said. The situation has worsened since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza, which has left some Jewish students at his university afraid to openly identify as Jews and feeling unsafe to attend classes.

“We are subject to propaganda that vilifies Israel as a colonial settler-state with no right to exist,” he stated, adding this “makes the university an uncomfortable place for Jewish students and faculty.” 

Schwartz believes professors and students should be allowed to criticize Israel and debate ideas about its policies.

But, he added, universities should also include antisemitism in their anti-discrimination initiatives and adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.

Universities also have a responsibility to emphasize the importance of free expression and intellectual diversity and “make it clear that they will engage with universities in Israel on the same basis as any others,” he said.

This means not boycotting academic exchanges with universities in Israel and not supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israeli businesses.

For Schwartz, who has taught at Manitoba’s largest university for 40 years and wrote the book before the Oct. 7 attacks, “doctrinaire thinking and the suppression of free debate is bad for Jews because Jews are, by tradition, iconoclasts and free thinkers.”

Schwartz will hold a fireside chat about his book on Nov. 30, 7 p.m. at the Berney Theater at the Asper Jewish Campus in Winnipeg.