Jewish advocacy groups granted intervener status in the University of Toronto court case to remove encampment

Standing with representatives of several other Jewish organizations, Rabbi Seth Goren, CEO of Hillel Ontario, speaks to reporters Monday, June 3, about the protest encampment at the University of Toronto. Later that day, the judge in UofT's application for a court order to remove the encampment granted intervener status to Hillel Ontario, StandWithUs Canada, B'nai B'rith, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the United Jewish Appeal (CIJA/UJA). (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

A half-dozen Jewish Canadian organizations have been granted intervener status in the court case launched by the University of Toronto to end the pro-Palestinian encampment on its downtown campus. The court’s decision was announced June 3.

UofT’s case seeking a court order for police to remove the encampment is set to be heard June 19 and 20 at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

The encampment protesters, whose tents have grown in number since initially demonstrators set up after 4 a.m. on May 2, have demanded the university cut ties with and divest from Israel and Israeli companies and 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.”

The protesters are also calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions operating in settlements in the West Bank or that “support or sustain” Israel in its war on Hamas.

Earlier on Monday, before they had learned that their intervener status had been granted, representatives from Hillel Ontario, StandWithUs Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, B’nai Brith, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and United Jewish Appeal (CIJA/UJA), Network of Engaged Canadian Academics (NECA), and Allied Voices for Israel (AVI) held a press conference outside the downtown UofT Hillel building.

Hillel Ontario CEO Rabbi Seth Goren, representing all the interveners, told reporters that Jewish voices “can no longer be silenced or dismissed” at UofT.

“The concerns of Jewish students, faculty, and staff must be heard. The Jewish community’s perspective must be a part of the public record through this process,” he said.

“Every UofT community member should feel safe and be free from harassment and intimidation on campus, and Jewish students, faculty, and staff are no exception,” said Rabbi Goren. “The encampment has continued to fuel hateful rhetoric, intolerance, and extremism.”

The university’s president, Meric Gertler, who along with administrators has continued to negotiate with encampment organizers while also seeking the injunction, recently confirmed UofT had fielded 38 reports of incidents of “harassment, discrimination, and ‘hateful speech and hateful actions’ connected with the encampment,” Rabbi Goren said.

The Toronto Police Service (TPS) says its Hate Crimes Unit is involved in three ongoing investigations from encampment incidents.

“Members of the campus community, including Jews, Israelis, and those who simply believe in the right of the State of Israel to exist, shouldn’t be blocked from entering shared common spaces on their campus,” nor have to endure messages on signs or in chants amounting to hatred and bigotry, Rabbi Goren said.

At a monthly police board meeting on May 31, TPS Deputy Chief Robert Johnson said officers cannot act to remove the encampment without a court order, given how long it’s now been allowed to remain in place.

On May 2, the first day the encampment was erected, UofT said the tents had to be removed by 10 p.m. The university then recanted as long as it remained peaceful, and continued meetings with organizers.

“Students shouldn’t have to walk through their campus seeing signs that tell them to ‘go back to Europe’ or encourage ‘resistance by any means necessary.’ They shouldn’t have to hear antisemitic chants about ‘all Zionists’ being racists or calls to globalize the murder and sadism that were part and parcel of both intifadas,” Rabbi Goren told reporters.

Encampment organizers have told The CJN that those specific messages and chants, among others, have been discouraged and even the source of expulsions from the encampment per its anti-discrimination rules.

With the school’s graduation ceremonies running from now through June 21, the head of Hillel Ontario said graduates have to contend with potential disruptions, harassment, and the threat of non-peaceful protest steps from Convocation Hall.

The university should not permit “rogue and fringe actors” to impact the ceremonies for students whose high school graduations four years ago were cancelled due to the pandemic, Rabbi Goren said.

“We continue to call on the UofT administration to show leadership and send a clear message that a hateful, anti-Jewish occupation of the campus will not be tolerated,” he said. Rabbi Goren noted that TPS last week arrested and charged a 36-year-old man over an alleged assault near the encampment on May 9, which police say began with the two in an argument.

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 UofT encampment gate “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.

Jesse Primerano, executive director of StandWithUs Canada, told The CJN that students in Toronto have shared feelings of fear and anger with the Jewish student advocacy organization.

“We have a lot of intimidation going on on campus… at the same time, these are people who have paid a tremendous amount of money to get an education that takes place typically over finite period of time,” he said.

The issue affects non-Jewish students too, he said.

“It’s a Canadian issue. This is not just a Jewish problem. This is something that’s going to spill over into our community. It already is impacting our community in so many ways as Canadians, rather than just Jews. And hopefully, the court will see that and understand that and help to get rid of this encampment.”

Intervener submissions that were also granted that status June 3 including some Jewish groups working with Palestinian supporters, in a coalition application from Independent Jewish Voices, United Jewish People’s Order, and the Jewish Faculty Network.

Also applying for intervener status to support the encampment protesters’ rights to remain until the university meets their demands are the UofT Faculty Association, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Legal Centre for Palestine, among other groups that were granted that status in the judge’s endorsement dated June 3.

Jewish groups supporting the encampment and its demands have frequently pointed out that counter-protesters near the encampment are directing antisemitic comments toward them.

Encampment organizers Occupy UofT for Palestine say their demands are clear, writing in a post June 3 that “we have worked towards coming to a consensus with admin, who have instead tried to bury us in legal documents and jargon,” saying the school’s counter-offers “in long and arduous language tell us they are not ready to commit to any demands.”

The group says those who wish to attend convocation should do so. On June 3, some of them held a graduation ceremony and vigil for Gazan academics who have lost their lives in Israel’s offensive against Hamas.

UofT issued a trespass notice May 24 after encampment representatives turned down the university’s settlement offer. The protesters ignored a May 27 deadline to clear out, which formally set in motion the injunction application.

A week has now passed without the pro-Palestinian encampment protesters being removed for trespassing.

However, on June 2, campus security quickly removed a counter-protest encampment that briefly went up near the encampment.

Joshua Samuels was told he was trespassing, and on a video posted online, a campus security officer is seen moving his things from within the fence enclosure he had scaled. 

Regarding this short-lived counter-protest, the university said it respects community members’ rights of assembly and “protest within the limits of UofT policies and the law.

“The entire fenced-in area of King’s College Circle… remains off-limits to people and structures and subject to a trespass order,” UofT wrote in a statement.

“Preventing any new encampment is consistent with our goal from the outset to find a resolution to the existing unauthorized encampment on front campus that monopolizes space for prolonged periods of time and unfairly prevents access to a shared-use space for all members of our community,” the statement read.

“For removal of the main encampment, TPS has made clear it will only act in situations involving an emergency to enforce the law and protect public safety, or act in accordance with a court order, which the university is seeking.”

One of the incidents that the TPS Hate Crime Unit is investigating involved Samuels, a PhD student at UofT in the joint program with the Toronto School of Theology.

In another encounter recorded and posted online, a group of protesters tried to pull away the Israeli flag and a sign from Samuels and another pro-Israel counter-protester during a rally on May 4.

Samuels held a rally with friends at Convocation Hall May 30, near the south edge of the encampment, and says he’s speaking out against antisemitism, and antizionism, to avoid being a “bystander.”

Samuels says if more students speak out against antisemitism and antizionism, Jewish or not, that will give momentum to others to do so.

“If we are silent about this, then I believe the consequences will be worse than the inconvenience of speaking out,” Samuels said.

He said he wants the right to protest the same as those in the existing encampment the university has allowed to remain, while his was removed within minutes.

Security told him if he put up a tent anywhere on campus, he can be arrested, he said. Samuels says he supports the student’s right to protest even if he disagrees, and that he’s “not against radical civil disobedience.”

He says that the TPS announcement that it won’t remove protesters without a court order, following the university’s decision to allow the encampment to remain for weeks, has legitimized protest encampments on campus.  So he decided to get his tent.

“It’s a vacant, fenced-off area at King’s College Circle. We fit the profile of students who belong. Sure, maybe we weren’t there from the beginning, and it’s a separate protest. But the point is the university is not able to discriminate one group of students against another student. I just saw this huge, glaring blind spot in everyone’s logic. And I thought, why not?”

In the video, protesters near the encampment fence tell Samuels he’s “stealing our thing” by starting his own encampment, and challenge him to name his demands.

Samuels says he wants UofT to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism that recognizes certain forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

“I want all students, faculty, administrators, clubs and unions to be held accountable to that definition,” and he wants UofT to adopt the definition into its code of conduct.

“Basically I’m calling for consistency. If the University of Toronto has any such dialogue with the encampment, we ask for the same treatment,” said Samuels.

He called for cutting ties with institutions, foreign universities, and countries which support Hamas, such as Iran.

“I think if we’re going to expose Israel and treat Israel like a pariah here, then we need to be consistent and apply this to others.”