University of Toronto seeks injunction to end encampment over ‘harmful, discriminatory’ speech as steadfast protesters hold a rally

Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss was one of several speakers at the rally, called by the Ontario Federation of Labour, on a rainy Monday morning, May 27, 2024. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

The University of Toronto is now seeking a court injunction to end the encampment in King’s College Circle after the 8 a.m. Monday deadline passed following a notice of trespass—while unionized workers joined students, faculty and other protesters for a rally on a rainy morning.

Shortly after the ultimatum hour, the university announced in a statement from UofT President Meric Gertler that its lawyers served documents “seeking an injunction order from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and asked the court for an expedited case conference for scheduling.”

But encampment organizers announced during the rally that the judge had put over the injunction hearing until Tuesday. One said there was another 5 p.m. meeting with university administrators scheduled for later on Monday, following a Sunday meeting at that time which produced no new outcomes.

News teams, protesters, unionized workers and UofT students and faculty before the beginning of the Monday, May 27 rally near the UofT encampment, minutes ahead of a downpour. The Ontario Federation of Labour called on workers to stand on the line with students and encampment protesters in case police were called in. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

“They want to clear this encampment, they have issued us a trespass notice,” said Sara Rasikh, a graduate student and encampment organizer.

“And now, an injunction, and the reason for this is because the people’s strength is threatening to them.”

The university statement said that it was continuing to meet with organizers as well as filing the injunction.

“In addition to pursuing this legal avenue to return King’s College Circle to the University community, we continue to engage in discussions with students representing those in the encampment.

“We held a long and productive meeting yesterday and are meeting again today. We remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement and bring the unauthorized encampment to an end.”

Commencement ceremonies are set to begin on June 3. Events typically take place in and around where the encampment was set up early in the morning of May 2, when protesters bypassed a fence the university had put up to keep out such camps.

Monday’s deadline followed a notice of trespass as of 4 p.m. Friday, May 24, when organizers did not accept the university’s proposal of May 23—and continued the encampment. The notice also warned of potential reprisals for UofT faculty supporting the protest, including possible termination.

The campus encampment is one of a wave of Canadian and U.S. protest camps demonstrating against Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, following the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, which have taken to more than 10 other Canadian and at least 120 or more U.S. campuses following one in April in New York at Columbia University.

The Occupy UofT for Palestine encampment’s demands are that the university disclose its public investments and divest from those that support the Israeli military or settlements in the West Bank, if any exist. Protesters want UofT to set up and allow their participation in a working group that would scrutinize its private investments, and they want the university to cut ties with some Israeli universities, which UofT has so far rejected.

Organizers previously mentioned examples of universities they say operate in the occupied Palestinian Territories, citing Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus; they also mentioned Technion University in Haifa for its involvement with face recognition technology reportedly used by the Israeli military to target Palestinians.

Outside of Convocation Hall Monday morning, hundreds of demonstrators brought flags, banners, and umbrellas in the intensifying morning rain showers.

“We’ll continue negotiations until our demands are met,” said Erin Mackey, a fourth-year UofT student and one of the encampment’s representatives.

“We have no choice other than to continue our negotiations and ensure UofT is no longer complicit in this genocide,” she told a crowd gathered amid the downpour.

“Here we are here, we will be here. We will continue to be demanding divestment. And so later today, we will meet again, with UofT at 5 p.m.”

“Once again, we are asking the University of Toronto to pick a side, justice or genocide,” said Mackey.

Encampment organizer and UofT student Erin Mackey being interviewed by a local TV journalist during the downpour at the end of the.morning rally outside the downtown Toronto campus encampment on Monday, May 27, 2024. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

The rally followed a call by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) in its open letter to Gertler over the weekend in which OFL president Laura Walton, who spoke at the rally, told Gertler that if he sent police to remove encampment protesters, he’d have to get through the union workers first.

She called out the university’s “attempt to threaten” or bully protesters, and said again that workers would be there to stand with protesting students and others in the encampment if the police were called in.

“One more day… let’s make it happen,” said Walton after the announcement of the hearing being put over to Tuesday.

During the rally, it was also announced that OFL would seek intervenor status in the court proceedings, to argue in favour of the encampment.

Despite the intensifying deluge, labour union heads from United Steelworkers and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) joined encampment organizers, UofT faculty, and other speakers, along with what appeared to be a growing number of supporters, and their umbrellas.

The Jewish Faculty Network (JFN), a Canadian Jewish group of professors which has supported the encampments—including UofT’s encampment in what’s now its nearly four-week run—held its banner prominently behind the microphones at the rally.

Zoe, a member of the Jewish Faculty Network, speaks in support of the student protest encampment at the morning rally on May 27, 2024. The group has supported the student protest encampment since it was set up on King’s College Circle on May 2. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

Zoe, a JFN member who did not give her last name or the UofT department or faculty in which she works, called out what she called the “criminalization of Charter-protected rights of assembly and free speech, the criminalization of… this action to defend human rights.”

“As Jewish grief and Jewish histories of trauma are once again weaponized, justifying the murders of Palestinians in Rafa and Gaza as well as the West Bank weaponized… I have been so proud to be here with Jewish colleagues and students and community members to practice Jewish ethics.”

Zoe called it “an ethics of refusal” to not allow “her own family’s history of slaughter to justify the slaughter of others.”

She said the JFN and Jewish community presence showed “there is nothing antisemitic about Palestinian life, about Palestinian resistance, and about Palestinian liberation,” and told the crowd that protecting those lives or that liberation project didn’t make her unsafe.

“It is my employer implying Jewish ethics—which call on me to say no to genocide, and to put that call into action—that practicing this Jewishness on university property is a crime. That’s what makes me unsafe,” Zoe said.

She said members of the university governing council had compared Jewish encampment supporters to Nazis, saying it was a Jewish Defence League (JDL) tactic. The far-right Jewish group is recognized as a terrorist organization south of the border—where it no longer appears to be active.

But former or current JDL Canada members (some of whom currently operate under the banner of Israel Now) have attended some of the many counter-protests at the encampment, and Jewish protesters allege they have been the victims of repeated antisemitic slurs based on their anti-Israel position.

In her speech, Zoe mentioned that Gertler was in Ottawa that morning to speak at House of Commons hearings on antisemitism, including the encampments.

“Today while President Gertler is off testifying in Ottawa at federal government hearings on antisemitism that are trying to force [universities] to adopt a definition of antisemitism which would say that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, we are here,” said Zoe.

“We are here engaging in the ‘vigilant protection of human rights’… which the university commits to in its statement of institutional purpose.”

Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss, who was introduced as a member of Independent Jewish Voices, and a longtime Palestinian solidarity supporter, attended and spoke at the rally. Organizers blasted the university over campus security not allowing Weiss and her husband’s vehicle to come directly to Convocation Hall to minimize walking for the elderly couple.

Weiss criticized the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism because of the stifling of criticism of Israel by labelling it as antisemitic rhetoric.

The adoption of the IHRA definition has been a controversial topic for many Canadian universities and government jurisdictions for a number of years, with opponents claiming its terms don’t allow for valid criticism of Israel without being labelled as antisemitism.

“The dictionary definition [of antisemitism] is hatred of Jewish people because they’re Jewish,” said Weiss.

“But this campaign, however, called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the IHRA, insists that criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

“Your encampment is a threat to this witch hunt campaign, and attacks you as antisemitic,” said Weiss. “It opposes the wearing of the keffiyeh, and persecutes all defenders of Palestinian freedom. We Jews have a long tradition of opposing racism, occupation … the systematic war of destruction is done in our name. That is an unforgivable crime.”

Judy Rebick, a Jewish activist, writer, and founding publisher of the left-wing critical news website Rabble, recalled a visit to Israel that she said shifted her away from Zionism when she found she “could not relate” to Israeli society.

“It was racist. It was militarist, and I broke from Zionism on that day in 1970. And and I’ve been organizing against Zionism more or less ever since,” she said.

“We were very few Jews who were against Zionism and critical of Israel… now we are many, but nobody talks about it.”

Rebick called on rally attendees to remain vigilant if police were called to the encampment.

“I want all of you to promise right now that as soon as you get a message that the cops are coming to this campus, you’re going to be here to stop them,” said Rebick.

But as the notice of motion filed by the university alleges, the 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 motion, as Jewish UofT community members have been saying for weeks about the encampment, 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.

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)

Gertler recently said in an interview with CBC Radio that there were around 38 incidents of hateful speech or acts the university had forwarded to Toronto Police Services.

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.

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

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

The notice of motion names 10 protesters as respondents, the Toronto Star reported late Monday after obtaining the filing, and says the checkpoint access at the encampment violates UofT’s inclusivity policies and limits rather than encourages free expression.

The filing says community member reports from the encampment of “violence, harmful and discriminatory speech and damage to the university’s property” have been numerous over its three-plus weeks to date, according to The Star.

“Members of the University community and the public have expressed serious concerns to the University about their health, safety, security, wellbeing, and freedom of speech and expression as a result of the encampment,” the filing said.

Jewish students, faculty and community supporters who oppose the encampment held a rally May 8 calling for the university to force its removal, and many of them signed a letter calling for Gertler to put an end to it.

Some of those students delivered the letter to Gertler on May 23, hours before the university publicized its proposed course of action and gave protesters 24 hours to accept and clear out, following which the university issued the notices of trespass.

Eden Marco, a member of the UofT Jewish Medical Students Association, spoke at the May 8 event, which organizers titled “Rally Against Hate.”

“A restricted ability to move freely and safely across campus grounds…instances of targeted harassment…these issues extend beyond political discourse,” Marco said at the rally held a few blocks away from the encampment.

“They directly impact our sense of belonging and safety within our university.”

Jewish UofT students and faculty gathered May 8 for a “Rally Against Hate” calling for the university to put an end to the encampment. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

Pekka Sinervo, a professor and former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told rally attendees May 8 that the downtown campus “has continued to become increasingly antisemitic,” and said all students need to be made welcome.

“Universities don’t exist unless you have students. They are what make universities and this has to be a university for all students,” said Sinervo. “And it has to be a university for all Jewish students as well.”