“There’s a feeling of discomfort, existential discomfort, being on that campus.”
That’s the message from longtime physician Philip Berger about the current heightened climate of antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric that’s been making life stressful for some Jewish professors and students at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.
Berger was reacting to a report released Dec. 5 by a colleague, Dr. Ayelet Kuper, which lists a litany of antisemitic insults and anti-Jewish stereotyping which she personally has encountered at the school. The paper was published by the Canadian Journal of Medical Education.
She didn’t name names, saying it is too risky for her own career and for other victims who came forward to her while she was serving as the special advisor on antisemitism to the dean of medicine. She was appointed to that role in June 2021 and left in June 2022. The position has not been filled.
Kuper, a daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, isn’t giving interviews at the moment, according to a spokesperson for the university’s media team, due to the sizable volume of requests she has received since the report was made public.
But some of the highlights of her report include:
- Being told that because she was born in Israel and refuses to denounce the Jewish state, she is “inherently racist, and therefore any discrimination I encounter as a Jew in Canada is therefore deserved.”
- A faculty member [told her] that Jews mustn’t be allowed to speak on their own behalf about antisemitism and shouldn’t even be subject to the protection from discrimination as outlined in the Ontario Human Rights Code, on the grounds that what Jews call antisemitism isn’t real.
- “In the years before the war in Gaza, I overheard faculty colleagues complaining about ‘those Jews who think their Holocaust means they know something about oppression.’”
- [I] heard about non-Jewish students who thought a Jewish classmate had the power to block their residency matches.
- Non-Jewish students asked her why educational content about Jews was “being forced on the students by the Jew who bought the faculty.”
(James Temerty, a Canadian businessman and philanthropist, donated millions to the school which was subsequently renamed in the family’s honour. He is not Jewish, but is a supporter of Jewish causes, particularly the Jewish community in his native Ukraine. After a request from The CJN, a spokesperson for the Temerty Foundation said the philanthropist “will not be commenting at this time”.)
Support for Israel dangerous
The release of Kuper’s paper confirms Berger’s experiences as an associate professor in the faculty of medicine, where vocal Jewish supporters of Israel, like himself, receive pushback from some of their 9,000 colleagues.
“It’s unsafe to do that in the faculty, and if one does, it leads to ostracism and really expulsion from any type of progressive causes in the faculty,” said Berger, who has worked with homeless people, HIV/AIDS patients, and addicts.
In his case, it was the result of an article about Israel that he wrote with the late human rights lawyer Clayton Ruby, which was published 20 years ago in the Globe and Mail.
“A close colleague, not Jewish, six months later said to me, ‘Let’s go for lunch.’ And he said to me, ‘I couldn’t talk to you for six months. I couldn’t look at you for six months after you wrote that article.’”
Berger is a member of the advocacy group Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA), which on Friday Dec. 9, issued a statement entitled “The Lid is Lifted on Antisemitism at the UofT’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine”. The group calls on the highest echelons of the university to act to “protect Jewish faculty and learners.”
According to Dr. Steve Samuel, a DARA board member who himself graduated from the University of Toronto in the 1970s, it isn’t the institution itself which is going out of its way to make life hard for Jewish learners and staff to live openly as Jews. Indeed, in September, the medical school held a much-publicized ceremony to formally apologize for decades of anti-Jewish quotas, which ended only in the 1950s.
These policies kept many students of Jewish faith from entering their chosen profession at the prestigious school, officials acknowledged on Sept. 29, but also hindered advancement for those young Jewish budding physicians who made it in.
“It’s not the university that’s attacking the Jewish students: it’s tolerating attacks on Jewish students and faculty, and it’s not doing anything about it,” said Samuel, in a Dec. 11 interview with The CJN Daily.
“The administration has to protect Jewish students and faculty in the same way as it protects other groups from being attacked by ignorant and racist individuals or groups, who don’t really even care about the university’s reputation.”
Both doctors say that the situation is not just being felt on campus, but also in the corridors of Toronto’s major teaching hospitals, where Jewish students must work as residents and interns.
Samuel recounts one story he knows that happened when a Jewish medical student was presenting a patient to her supervising senior physician.
“In your description of the case, you would say, ‘This 65-year-old Israeli-born woman’, and your supervisor rolls up his eyes; that speaks volumes as to what he feels about that student,” Samuel recalled.
The 2021 war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel may have prompted heightened levels of Jew hatred, Kuper writes, but the attacks on Jewish staff and students at U of T have existed for years before that. The difference is that the discussion is now couched in terms of criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the right of Israel to exist, although when challenged, her colleagues and others deny their views smack of antisemitism.
One flashpoint for Berger and Samuel continues to be over a speech to the medical school in January 2022 by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. His lecture was timed for the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27).
Subsequently, some 45 faculty members signed a letter to the school accusing Cotler of anti-Palestinian racism. The letter was leaked publicly, and caused outrage, especially for DARA members. Berger slams those colleagues for using arguments that themselves are antisemitic.
“It used classic antisemitic stereotypes and tropes: one of the worst was they attacked Professor Cotler for denouncing antisemitism at the United Nations conference in Durban,” Berger said, referring to the 2001 anti-racism meeting in South Africa that became a hate-filled attack on Israel.
“They denounced him for criticizing the fact that at that conference, people were carrying placards saying ‘If only Hitler had won’ – they were issuing Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and those 45 faculty labelled that as legitimate criticism of Israel.”
Some Jewish faculty to blame: Kuper
Kuper’s report declined to name any of the perpetrators of the antisemitism individually, but she singled out in general some Jewish members of the UofT faculty for being behind the toxic atmosphere.
Some of these Jewish professors, she claims, are among the 45 faculty members who signed the letter.
“Some of those self-identified Jews have said discriminatory things to me about Jews; some of them have also described to me a deep embarrassment at being Jewish. However, their being Jewish is often used by them and by their non-Jewish colleagues to claim that what they are all saying or doing can’t possibly be antisemitic,” Kuper writes, describing this as “Jew-washing”.
Some of the discord is also over whether the university should adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which some critics say would stifle academic freedom and their ability to criticize Israel. Cotler has repeatedly insisted the IHRA definition—which Canada and three dozen other countries have adopted, along with five Canadian provinces—does not prevent legitimate criticism of Israel government policies, but does declare it antisemitism when all Jews are blamed, or when Israel’s right to exist is opposed.
A working group on antisemitism at the UofT, which Kuper sat on, presented its report at the end of December 2021, but did not recommend that the school adopt the IHRA definition.
Dr. Samuel’s DARA group hears from many Jewish students, he said, who feel they cannot approach their own faculty advisors when faced with uncomfortable situations over being Jewish or supporting Israel. That was the case with a UofT family doctor who takes very public anti-Israel and also antisemitic positions on her social media account.
“This is an EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) lead. So if a student who is being intimidated or harassed is to see this tweet, how comfortable will they feel to go to that individual and say, ‘Look, I was attacked for being a Zionist’. Will they be able to do so? No,” said Samuel.
Jews not considered oppressed
The surgeon is frustrated by the current view popular in Canadian campus EDI programs, where special efforts are made to protect marginalized groups including Black, Muslim and Indigenous learners, but do not not see Jewish people as facing oppression.
Kuper writes that she has been told by experts in critical race theory and equity theory that because she has white skin, she has the same “privilege and ease in the world as any white person, and that I therefore can’t possibly understand oppression.”
For its part, the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s dean, Trevor Young, and the Associate Dean of Inclusion and Diversity Lisa Richardson, issued a joint statement confirming that they had read Kuper’s report. The pair denounced antisemitism.
The statement did not outline any concrete steps which the school planned to take to tackle the issue.
“Ancient tropes and hatred have no home here. It is not who we are at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. It is not what we stand for as a faculty, and we are wholly committed to doing better,” read the statement. “We are listening to your experiences and evolving our programs and spaces, working toward our goal to be an inclusive and welcoming academic health science community in a diverse and welcoming Canadian metropolis.”
Jewish organizations meanwhile have called for an independent investigation and for Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities to intervene.
The statement also did not impress Kuper’s colleagues, including Berger, who blames the president of the university, Meric Gertler, for not doing more on the antisemitism issue.
“It’s really clear that the highest levels of the university administration are prepared to let people who oppose Israel run their policies and often do issue outright antisemitic slogans and tropes. They are, for some reason that is perplexing to me, afraid to take it on. Until they do, no Jewish student or faculty can feel safe in that university,” Berger said.
Will the climate have a chilling impact on enrolment of Jewish medical students? Berger speculates this may be happening already.
“The number of Jewish medical students has dropped quite substantially over the years. So they’re a very small minority now in the faculty of medicine as learners, as medical students,” he said, acknowledging that he does not have any data on this.
“But this report isn’t going to make it easier for Jewish students to want to go there. It’s going to make them think twice.”