Professors and students at the University of Victoria say they are harassed and threatened, while the administration offers no help

Jewish students and staff at the University of Victoria say they feel unsafe, are repeatedly harassed and feel isolated by both peers and professors.

Tal Katz, the Hillel director at UVic, says students wearing kippot have been spat on and called “dirty Jews.” Other students have been harassed online and a significant number of students do not feel comfortable attending classes in person.

There have also been reports, including one involving a biology class, of professors and teaching assistants voicing anti-Israel opinions in the classroom.

“There have been ‘walkout’ rallies held almost every week, at least one of which brought a Palestinian Youth Movement speaker from Vancouver and where chants of ‘intifada til victory,’ ‘from the river to the sea,’ and calls for BDS were led,” Katz said

While praising campus security for being very supportive, Katz said Hillel’s relationship with the students’ society has become adversarial. Hillel first approached the society in late October when the society cancelled the student union movie theatre’s screening of Golda (about Israeli prime minister Golda Meir). The students’ society said it was protecting student employees from being harassed by demonstrators for showing a film about Israel.

“They initially took our comments into consideration when crafting their first (very positive) statement on the conflict in Israel, but then later published a second one accusing Israel of genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes which we found damaging and have been asking them to rescind and rectify,” he said. 

Katz added that Hillel has also been engaging with the students’ society to take action against the clubs organizing the walkouts where the calls for intifada and other antisemitic chants have been heard, with very limited success thus far.

In other incidents at UVic, a board of governors meeting in November was disrupted after being stormed by pro-Palestinian protesters. Meanwhile, a poster was hung on the window of the gender studies department that read, “Indigenous feminist resistance from Turtle Island to Palestine.”

April Nowell, a professor of anthropology at UVic, spoke about the concerns she has for her Jewish students. “It is so stressful for them, both what is going on in Israel and around the world and how they are treated on campus,” she explained.

As for herself, Nowell said, “Personally, walking to my class to prepare to teach and to hear hundreds of students chanting ‘from the river to the sea’ made me start shaking. I don’t frighten easily but this was a visceral reaction, partly out of anger. I can’t explain what it feels like to have hundreds of people chant for the death of people like you.”

Another professor at the university, David Zimmerman, said in a social media post earlier this month that he had tried to contact the university’s president, Kevin Hall, about concerns for the safety of Jewish students and staff on campus to no avail.

“I sent an email to the president of the University of Victoria demanding action to provide Jews on campus a safe space free from harassment, which includes freedom from those advocating the extermination of Jews,” read the post from Zimmerman, a professor of history. “Despite my position as one of the university’s senior-most faculty members and an expert on academic antisemitism, President Hall hasn’t deigned to reply.

“The surge of antisemitism on university campuses in North America, and the failure of university administrators to protect Jewish students, faculty and staff from those advocating genocide, has eerie similarities to events at German universities in 1933.”

In a letter to the university’s president, Zimmerman wrote that, for the first time since he arrived on campus 33 years ago, he is fearful for the safety of all Jews, including himself, on campus. “It is time for you to take steps to ensure the campus is a safe place for all members of the campus community,” the letter says.

One professor at the university who asked not to be named said they have also reached out to the office of the university’s president on two occasions, first receiving what they describe as a “non-committal response” from the executive director in the office and the second time no reply.

“Individual professors continue to have posters on their doors advocating for violence against Israel, and I had a colleague tell me that a Jewish student in class was completely isolated by the other students and, as a result, was withdrawn and afraid to participate,” the professor said.

Victoria is the fastest-growing Jewish community in Canada, with a population of 4,385, according to the 2021 census (up from 2,630 a decade earlier). The Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island (JFVVI) has been trying to approach the university about the rising tensions on campus and the fears Jewish students have.  Sharon Fitch, the president of JFVVI, said that her organization sent a letter to the president of the university with no response.

The next step will be a letter to the board of governors, she said.

In a statement to The CJN, a UVic spokesperson said freedom of expression and engagement with challenging topics are vital to the academic environment at the school and that the university “expects thoughtful, reasoned and respectful academic discourse.”

“We have a duty to support all students, staff and faculty and we take our role in creating a safe, inclusive community seriously,” the statement read.

UVic said its campus security team works with staff, faculty and students to build safety plans when issues are brought to their attention, and the school has a series of supports and resources available to all members of the community.

“Further, when complaints are made regarding issues of discrimination and harassment, the university investigates and uses the tools and measures available to address those issues,” the spokesperson said.

In an Oct. 30 statement posted on the university’s website, President Hall wrote, “Harassment and abuse have no place here. As members of the UVic community, it is imperative that each of us lead by example and demonstrate respect and compassion for one another during this challenging time, and always.”

Elsewhere in Victoria, the backlash against Susan Kim, a city councillor, has slipped out of the news cycle.

Last month, Kim received widespread attention for signing a letter which called into question sexual violence against Israeli women carried about by Hamas on Oct. 7. The letter contained the line: “unverified accusation that Palestinians were guilty of sexual violence.”  

At the time, there had been calls for Kim to be censured by city council and resign. She subsequently issued two apologies and withdrew her name from the letter, though some felt those actions were not enough.

The local federation said it had a fruitful meeting with Victoria mayor Marianne Alto earlier in the week. “She listened attentively and appreciated the candor of our discussion,” said JFVVI president Fitch.

The mayor has not yet made a statement about Kim.

Unlike others whose names were on the list, Kim remains at her post. On Nov. 18, Samantha Pearson was fired from her position as the director of the University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre in Edmonton for signing the letter.

Sarah Jama, an MPP from Hamilton also signed the letter.  Before her signature on the letter appeared in the news, Jama had been censured by the Ontario legislature and removed from the provincial NDP caucus for antisemitic statements.