Jewish students at Canadian universities say there’s a new level of worry on campus

Protestors at University of Toronto, Oct. 17, 2023 (Credit: Micah Zionce)

Jewish students and academic communities at some of Canada’s top universities say there’s a new level of worry about being on campus following the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.

While many larger university campuses, and especially student unions and other student-led bodies, have long fostered anti-Israel rhetoric and events, this time feels different to many Jewish student bodies, according to local Hillel and Jewish community representatives.

A student at University of Toronto Mississauga has been charged following a social media post that UTM vice-president and principal Alexandra Gillespie said contained “threatening and hateful messages.”

The 19-year-old student was arrested off-campus and later released with conditions that specify he is not permitted on any UofT campus.

University of Toronto’s downtown campus, meanwhile was the site of a noisy protest that saw pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students facing off for close to two hours on Oct. 17.

Students Joshua Heuberger and William Hollis said they organized the rally to mourn the 1,400 people killed in Israel by Hamas.

“We’re not pro-government. We’re just standing in solidarity with the lives that have been lost, that shouldn’t be a controversial thing,” Heuberger said.

Heuberger is from Calgary and he said friends and family warned him that University of Toronto was the most antisemitic campus in the country.

“I’m trying to change that narrative. I’m trying to say there is a strong, proud and loud Jewish presence on campus.”

The two students say they have seen some antisemitism on campus, since the Hamas attacks. Posters of missing Israelis, believed to have been kidnapped by Hamas, have been torn down. A Palestinian flag was painted on the steps of the building where the rally took place.

The students said they could see anti-Israel posts on social media and many calls from pro-Palestinian students to attend the rally, with their faces covered.

The pro-Israel memorial, attended by about 40 people, many wearing Israeli flags, had barely started on the steps of the Sidney Smith Hall on St. George Street when pro-Palestinian protesters, with a much louder megaphone, began chanting “Free, Free Palestine”, drowning out the remarks of MPP Laura Smith, who represents Thornhill, Ont.

As the afternoon wore on, the pro-Palestinian side grew larger and louder. The two groups ended up facing each other, separated by a line of special constables from the university. Over a dozen Toronto police officers watched from the sides of the plaza.

The protest ended peacefully, with the pro-Israel organizers leaving as it grew darker and colder.

In Montreal, Avishai Infeld, an advocacy associate with Hillel Montreal, says this is a new level of apprehension than in the past.

“People have been very, very scared, profoundly worried in a way that I’ve never seen before,” he says.

“There’s a level of absurdity to it, to feel so scared in the midst of all this grief and trying to process it. Everyone in the community has some sort of connection to those who were murdered or who have gone missing. This is such a real thing for all of us.”

According to Infeld, Montreal police and McGill campus security ensured Jewish students were safe for a “Unity Shabbat” prayer service and dinner on Friday, Oct. 13, following a vigil the day before for Israeli casualties, but a number of students are still approaching the organization to voice safety concerns. (Hillel Montreal provides services to both McGill and Concordia.)

“Many people come to us [saying]: ‘We don’t feel safe walking around. We don’t feel safe leaving our apartment or a dorm to go to the unity Shabbat dinner, or to the vigil,’” Infeld said.  

 Police escorted about 200 Jewish students from the Kabbalat Shabbat service at McGill Hillel to the off-campus Chabad house, following a larger pro-Palestinian protest earlier in the day.

“One of the saddest and yet most incredible things that I ever saw: not only did police stand guard, but blocked a major street on either side while we went from Hillel to Chabad,” Infeld said.  “They really kind of formed a barrier around us.”

Infeld says police told the Jewish group they felt they needed to provide that security following the pro-Palestinian rally as “they weren’t sure what the situation was.”

At another pro-Palestine rally, held off-campus on Friday, Infeld estimates at least 2,000 people attended, greatly outnumbering the overall Jewish student body, and that the rally “combined with the general rhetoric on social media that day certainly made people feel unsafe.”

“In general [we are] telling our students: Don’t engage. Stay away. Don’t change your behaviour.

“I hope we never get to this point. And if anything happens, don’t hesitate to report to the police, the community security now, or campus security wherever is happening.”

“We’re not telling people to hide their Jewish identity. Unfortunately, many students have. It’s not something we’re telling people to do, it’s something they’re choosing. [It’s] simply the reality that many have chosen to do that.”

Rabbi Kylynn Cohen, a Jewish educator with Hillel BC, says many students are grappling with grief as they navigate a wide range of emotions, including those who knew Ben Mizrachi, 22, who died in the Hamas attack on the Supernova music festival “while selflessly helping others.”

“A significant number of students I’ve interacted with this week have experienced the loss of someone they know, and in some instances, these losses have been particularly distressing,” she wrote in a statement to The CJN.

Rabbi Cohen says it doesn’t help that the initial statements made by university presidents across the province avoided designating Hamas as a terrorist organization and suggested a moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas.

“In the wake of these horrific terrorist attacks, many students have sought solace within our building, searching for a place where their emotions and grief can find understanding and support. They express a profound sense of shattered safety, particularly given events like the Day of Rage which called for violence against Jews. Several students, especially those who are grieving or have family ties to Israel, have encountered difficulties in attending school and managing their coursework.”

Rabbi Cohen added that in addition to providing students with support and resources like access to counseling, Hillel BC has bolstered security across all of its campuses, including UBC, Simon Fraser and University of Victoria.

Jay Solomon, chief advancement officer with Hillel Ontario, says the organization has received messages, in private, of support from students who feel that one-sided messages, like the one from York Federation of Students, are deeply disturbing.

The two-page “Statement of Solidarity with Palestine” from the York University Graduate Students’ Association, the York Federation of Students, and the Glendon College Student Unions was published on the groups’ social media platforms the week following the attacks in Israel.

The letter references Palestinian “resistance efforts,” and makes no mention of the Hamas massacre of civilians. It was later condemned by York University.

“They [student groups] are certainly not supportive of Jewish students,” says Solomon, who notes these organizations purport to represent all students.

These tensions lead to greater anxiety and worries about antisemitism flaring up on campus, he says, noting that Hillel Ontario, which provides services to 14,000 Jewish students across nine Ontario universities and colleges, has moved temporarily to a locked door policy as part of increased security.

Renan Levine, a professor of political science who teaches at University of Toronto Scarborough (and past contributor to The Canadian Jewish News), says that while he senses Jewish and Muslim students and faculty “are feeling like they are in a very precarious situation”, he acknowledges “in some ways that’s not new.” But the nature of the attacks make this time different.

“The nature of the attacks on the civilians in Israel really has shocked a lot of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, and there is a tremendous sense of unease among Jewish faculty and staff that the responses of students and faculty who are so strongly opposed to Israel that the timing and tone of those statements have left us wondering whether our own co-workers, colleagues and peers actually recognize our humanity.”

Levine pointed to a statement on social media from the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) that expressed solidarity “with all Palestinians and innocent civilians affected” yet only tacitly acknowledged the massacre of more than 1,000 innocent Israelis.

 University officials decried the statement.

A petition letter to university administration from more than 2,000 members of the UofT academic community stated they were disappointed that the university “mentioned only the attacks on Israeli civilians… failed to acknowledge the brutal, untenable conditions that Israel has long imposed on Palestinian.” They were also upset that “a statement on events in Israel-Palestine was only made when there was a mass attack on Israelis.”

Levine says he respects his colleagues, their expertise and academic freedom in general.

“I expect the same from them in return because I also speak about Israel/Palestine, where admittedly most everything is contested. I know that I can’t deliver a perfect class. I’m not going to be totally unbiased, but I also know that I’m going to work really hard to make sure my students are exposed to and appreciate a wide range of perspectives.

“Many of us in academia tend to identify on the left … [many of my] colleagues are active in effort to bring about an equitable peace, resolution of the conflict in Israel/Palestine and I think many of those colleagues are especially taken aback that colleagues they may have looked to as people they could engage in dialogues with about a resolution to the conflict seem to be so disinterested in resolving the conflict in any way other than ‘this is all Israel’s fault and it has been for 75 years.’

“The pedagogy assigns blame and simple explanations for what has been a very long and protracted conflict.”

In Kingston, Ont., Rabbi Erin Polansky, who works closely with the Hillel at Queen’s University, says Jewish students are not feeling supported by the school administration right now. She mentions a statement of solidarity with Palestinians signed by multiple law students that she says justifies the attacks and calls Israel illegitimate. She says the dean of the law school has not rescinded nor made a follow-up statement to denounce terrorism.

And while pro-Israel students led a vigil Oct. 16, that drew over 600 people, and a rally the next day at City Hall, Polansky says they are upset.

“They don’t feel safe, sitting next to people in class who support terrorism … unsettling to say the least.”

 She mentioned a political science teaching assistant sent out articles promoting the Palestinian cause of resistance without any Israeli Jewish voices and passing that off as balanced.

Rabbi Polansky mentioned a statement from Jane Philpott, the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s, which did the necessary job of “calling Hamas what it is, threading the needle, concerned with loss of innocent life. I wish they could come together, denounce terrorism, and grieve together… [there’s] a lot of retreating to corners.”

Rabbi Polansky notes the first communication from the university mentioned the situation was bad for all involved and offered supports for students. “but nothing about ‘this is terrorism’ which students need to hear.”

“Sometimes you have to call things what they are. We can do both, we need to do both.”