Protest disrupts York U Chanukah celebration

York students with an inflatable chanukiyah
York students with an inflatable chanukiyah

A pre-Chanukah fun get-together sponsored by Hillel at York University was disrupted recently by supporters of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) who were attending a “silent protest” nearby.

As students gathered at a Chanukah photo booth in Vari Link on Dec. 3, protesters attending a YU Divest event tens of metres away approached the Hillel display and chanted slogans. At one point, before the Hillel event formally kicked off, they were seen handing out leaflets only a couple of metres from the Hillel display. YU Divest is a campaign launched by SAIA in 2011.

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“We had students come up to us expressing their frustration that a protest was happening and that it created a negative atmosphere for the students,” said Anna Baev, director of Hillel York and Jewski, an outreach program to Russian Jews. “They felt it was ruining the overall environment on campus.”

The pre-Chanukah event featured a photo booth and various Chanukah-related props, including an inflatable chanukiyah. Students took fun pictures in the booth and asked Hillel student leaders and shinshinim – visiting Israeli emissaries – about the holiday. About 400 students participated at the Hillel event over two days, many of them not Jewish, Baev said.

On its Facebook page, Hillel stated, “What was planned as a silent protest turned into chants and the blocking of the hallways. While Hillel prides itself on promoting respectful discourse on all campuses, we find tactics of harassment and intimidation to be intolerable.”

Hillel later added: “We would like to clarify that the demonstrators were not protesting the photo booth itself. The protest was an unrelated event that took place nearby.”

Joanne Rider, director of media relations at York, said “we are in the process of reviewing video footage and soliciting feedback from staff members who were present.”

“YU Divest, a group with members from various clubs and organizations, held a silent protest in Vari Hall on that day. The table booked by Hillel was located in the Ross Link.  Hillel members were advised in advance by York staff that YU Divest was tabling in the adjacent space and they agreed to be in the link which is a distance from Vari Hall,” Rider said.   

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(Baev told The CJN that York’s administration confirmed the booking of the Chanukah event Nov. 23, but were only told of the nearby protest on the morning of Dec. 3.)

“Janet Morrison, vice-provost students, has personally reached out to students who have expressed concerns. We have not received a formal complaint from a student, nor have we been contacted by any students who said they were present and felt intimidated,” Rider said.

“Any student who has or does contact us will be advised about how – under the Student Code of Rights and Responsibilities – they can file a formal complaint. We encourage them to do so.

“York University is committed to freedom of expression and takes proactive measures to help ensure a safe and inclusive environment free from discrimination and harassment,” she added.

The Chanukah get-together was part of Hillel’s mandate of creating a visible presence, presenting Jewish programming and enhancing Jewish life on campus. Despite the disruption, “we consider our event a success,” Baev said.

Anti-Semitic nature on “full display”

On Dec. 7, after the start of the holiday, another 60 students – Jewish and non-Jewish – participated in a candle-lighting ceremony and continued the celebration at Hillel’s campus headquarters. The event included a food drive to benefit Jewish and non-Jewish food banks, Baev said.

Commenting on the photo booth incident, Avi Benlolo, CEO of Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, “The true anti-Semitic nature of the anti-Israel boycott crowd at York University was on full display as a Jewish student celebration of Chanukah was disrupted by anti-Israel students chanting and blocking hallways… This incident may be the beginning a more profound effort to marginalize the Jewish presence at York as anti-Israel incitement on campus, encouraged by a large mural at York’s student centre which promotes Palestinian violence against Israel, does not typically cross over into direct anti-Jewish action, as it now has done.”

SAIA representatives did not reply to CJN requests for comment.