Assault charge laid, arrest made related to incident near the University of Toronto encampment—while its president speaks in Ottawa on antisemitism, and the school seeks a removal injunction

The U of T encampment is seen approaching from the south on May 3, 2024. A sign (left) reads "glory to all martyrs." (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

Updated 6/4/2024*

Toronto Police have arrested and charged a man for assault over an incident May 9 near the protest encampment at the University of Toronto’s King’s College Circle on its downtown campus. 

Toronto Police Services (TPS) say they responded at 3:45 p.m. that day to a call about an assault in the area of the circular road that encircles the grassy quad where more than 120 encampment tents remained at previous counts.

In a news release, TPS alleges that the assault took place after two people began arguing, when one person who “attended the encampment area” was “approached by the suspect.” TPS says the suspect assaulted the victim following the argument, that the two people did not know one another, and that the victim did not sustain any injuries. 

On Friday, May 24, TPS arrested and charged a 36-year-old man. According to news reports, TPS says it took them time to investigate the incident.

Late on June 3, The Toronto Star published an article using screen captures from a video the accused man says refutes the details of the assault charge claims that TPS alleges. The newspaper posted the video on YouTube, saying it documents the incident “at the University of Toronto that led to a pro-Palestinian protester being charged with assault casts new light on the encounter and, according to the man’s lawyer, raises questions about the charges laid against him.” The accused man is due in court on July 9.*

The man, Hesham Aly, 36, of Toronto, had previously been charged in January during one of the pro-Palestinian protests that had been taking place on the overpass in the Avenue Road and Highway 401 area.

He was one of three demonstrators who were arrested and charged on Jan. 13 with obstructing a peace officer after refusing TPS orders to leave the bridge, police said. That protest followed TPS Chief Myron Demkiw announcing a ban on demonstrations on that bridge overpass after pedestrian and car access had been shut down on several occasions due to the protests, about which complaints had abounded from nearby Jewish residents. 

The assault charge and arrest coming out of the encampment coincide with the UofT’s legal action as it seeks a court order to allow the removal of the encampment, which went up in the pre-dawn hours of May 2 when protesters broke down one portion of a fence the university had put up to block and discourage such encampments. 

The court filing for an injunctive relief to take down the encampment, or an injunction, came after protesters refused to leave, missing a Monday morning deadline to do so, which following notice of trespass as of 4 p.m. Friday, May 24.

Faculty members supporting the encampment held their own press conference Tuesday to say they would stand between police and the students in the encampment, if it came to it.

Organizers rejected the university’s proposal of May 23—and continued the encampment—prompting the trespass notice, which also warned of potential reprisals for UofT faculty supporting the protest, including possible termination.

The encampment protest organizers’ demands are that the school cut ties with and divest from Israel and Israeli companies or academic institutions, beginning by disclosing their investments, followed by divesting from “financial holdings from all direct and indirect investments that sustain Israeli apartheid, occupation and illegal settlement of Palestine.”

A third demand calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions operating in settlements in the West Bank or that “support or sustain the apartheid policies of the state of Israel and its ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

The encampment fence now allows protesters to control access to the inner enclosure, which opponents of the encampments, including many of the Jewish students and faculty in the UofT community, say amounts to a public space being controlled via an adherence to a specific political ideology.

The language around the encampment and a number of incidents have been described as threatening by some Jewish faculty and students. 

In seeking a court injunction that would allow the university to enlist police help to clear the encampment, the university says the protest encampment has created an unwelcome environment for pro-Israel Jews on campus and has been gate-keeping access to the commons in a way that contravenes university policies.

In the court application filed by lawyers for UofT’s governing council—as some Jewish UofT community members have been saying for weeks about the encampment—opponents including counter-protesters and Jewish students have reported being harassed, swarmed or surrounded, called slurs, or otherwise made unwelcome, whether from messages in chants, written in chalk on the ground or on signs visible along the enclosure’s fence.

The notice says community members reported witnessing “deeply disturbing language” inside or near the encampment including “Zionists go back to Europe,” “Glory to the Martyrs” and “Burn Tel Aviv Down.”

Jewish UofT encampment participants told The CJN that incidents from the encampment’s early days involving phrases like “go back to Europe,” which quickly tested organizers’ anti-discrimination policies, have resulted in the removal of both those messages, and of people who shared them, from the encampment.

The Toronto Star reported that it observed the “Burn Tel Aviv Down” message on the encampment’s first day, and it was then removed.

Encampment organizers point to the integral role of Jewish participants and organizers in the camp, and to its own anti-discrimination rules that have led to some of the offensive messages being taken down, or those promoting them at times told they were no longer welcome for violating those rules. 

Earlier in the week, before TPS announced the charge and arrest, the presidents of four Canadian institutions, including University of Toronto’s president, Meric Gertler, appeared via videoconference at a parliamentary committee examining antisemitism, where Gertler told MPs he was disappointed that antisemitism “has been a growing presence recently in our university.”

Gertler said it was “discouraging” that “antisemitic incidents and hate based crimes are on the rise in Canada,” and that UofT had “taken a comprehensive set of actions to combat antisemitism and ensure our campuses are places where Jewish members of our community feel safe included and respected.”

He cited the 2022 apology from the Temerty Faculty of Medicine over its imposition of quotas on Jewish medical students and trainees in the 1940s to 1960s, and noted the medical school’s research project “that sheds light on this shameful historical practice.”

“The Faculty of Medicine introduced a new unit on antisemitism and anti-racism as part of its professional training and now consults regularly with Jewish learners to ensure they are properly supported,” said Gertler on Tuesday. 

“Our efforts to combat antisemitism are comprehensive and multifaceted. Are they enough until there are no further instances of antisemitism?” Gertler asked MPs during his remarks. 

“The answer for us and for society at large must be no. But I hope you will acknowledge the diligent efforts.”

The presidents of McGill University and Concordia University in Montreal, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and UofT’s Gertler faced questions from MPs in the House of Commons committee on their efforts to combat the antisemitism on their campuses that by all accounts has surged since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel and the ensuing devastating war waged by Israel in Gaza against Hamas. 

University campuses had already been roiling with tensions around the ongoing war when the wave of protest encampments began late in April, starting with McGill, in Canada, after US campus protests set up in solidarity with one at Columbia University in New York.

Gertler also said that there were around 38 incidents of hateful speech or acts related to the UofT encampment that the university had forwarded to TPS, a number he’d previously mentioned in a May 24 CBC Radio interview. 

On Tuesday, he said about half a dozen of those “we believe may qualify as hate speech or hateful acts and we are working closely with TPS to help them indeed investigate these incidents.”

In an email May 23, Toronto Police Services (TPS) mentioned three reported incidents from the encampment or surrounding area, from May 4 and May 5, were being investigated, and that the Hate Crimes Unit was involved.

The two May 4 incidents involved a daytime report of two men being assaulted and having their flags and scarves taken; and, at night, person being “assaulted from behind… pulled by the hair and punched” following an argument TPS says took place between one group of people walking near the encampment, and a crowd of people from the encampment.

In the May 5 incident, at midday, a man was allegedly “surrounded by several people, assaulted, and temporarily prevented from leaving the area” after gaining entry to the encampment, TPS said.

TPS Deputy Chief Robert Johnson was also among those who appeared at the parliamentary committee on Monday. 

He told MPs that he recommended adopting “a standardized definition of hate crime and conducting community consultations to better understand the definition and controversial slogans.”

Johnson also recommended that Parliament ban certain flags or symbols associated with hate groups; that the list of banned groups should be updated with new ones that appear to have formed since the Oct. 7 attacks; and that police officers should be able to lay hate crime charges without the current requirement of consent from the Attorney General of Canada to do so. 

Meanwhile, the protest encampment remains in place, set to reach four full weeks on Thursday, May 30, with no signs that the court injunction will be heard in time for the encampment to be removed before Monday, June 3, when convocation ceremonies begin, running until June 21 in the area in and around the encampment, and its close proximity to Convocation Hall to the south of the circle. (The university previously indicated it wanted the encampment removed before the run of graduation ceremonies.)

Late on Wednesday, The Toronto Star reported that June 19 and 20 would be the dates for the injunction hearing, according to lawyers representing some of the protesters. This was confirmed shortly thereafter confirmed when UofT’s legal team posted new documents to its public website for the case, including the judge’s schedule.

Lawyers for the university’s governing council and the 10 respondents named in the court filings, as well as several would-be intervenors on both sides, were beginning the process of submitting documents Wednesday, May 29. Intervenors were to each submit five-page document outlining their interests in the matter by Thursday, the judge said during a videoconference about the case on Tuesday, May 28.

A number of Jewish organizations are seeking intervenor status, on both sides. On the university’s side, calling for the encampment’s removal, lawyers present May 28 were representing B’nai Brith, Hillel Ontario, StandWithUs Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and United Jewish Appeal (CIJA/UJA).

Jewish groups working in solidarity with Palestinian supporters include a coalition application for intervenor status from a lawyer representing Independent Jewish Voices, United Jewish People’s Order, and the Jewish Faculty Network supporting the encampment protester’s rights to remain until the university meets their demands. The UofT Faculty Association, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Legal Centre for Palestine are also among the groups supporting the encampment while applying for intervenor status in the case. 

Protest encampment organizers also say they were preparing to respond to a number of specific allegations of hateful and harmful conduct.