Jewish groups allege that naked anti-Semitism was behind what they say was a walkout staged by Muslim and pro-Palestinian students at a Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) meeting that stymied a motion to commemorate Holocaust Education Week.
B’nai Brith Canada, Hillel Ontario and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) all condemned the walkout, which took place Nov. 29 at the RSU’s semi-annual general meeting after a Jewish student introduced a motion to dedicate a week of programming to on-campus Holocaust education.
The meeting lost quorum because of the walkout, which meant the resolution could not be put to a vote. The motion had been proposed in advance of the meeting by Samantha Cooper, a fifth year arts and contemporary studies student at Ryerson University.
“Hillel Ontario is shocked that university students would reject an apolitical week dedicated to Holocaust Education Week,” the group said in a statement.
“This outrageous incident is emblematic of the kind of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish sentiment that is rampant on Ontario campuses,” said Amanda Hohmann, national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights.
In a statement, B’nai Brith quoted a Ryerson student who attended the meeting and said the walkout was a “premeditated tactic organized by local members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP Ryerson) and the [Ryerson] Muslim Students Association (RMSA).”
The latter group put out a call to its supporters on its Facebook page urging students to attend the RSU meeting.
Both groups denied they staged a walkout.
“Allegations that we organized or directed the loss of quorum are completely false and hurtful,” the RMSA said in a Facebook statement. “We strongly believe in free speech, the right for all paying members of the RSU to put forth motions, and the importance of motions being debated and put to a democratic vote.”
In a Dec. 1 statement on Facebook, SJP Ryerson said it “did not engage in any manner in the ‘planned’ walkout. Whether certain groups facilitated a walkout does not reflect our beliefs or what we stand for. Executive members who attended the [meeting] did not attend with the purpose of targeting a specific motion.”
It added: “SJP does not in any shape, way, or form, support any kind of hate, including anti-Semitic hate speech, nor will we ever engage in it or support it. Guided by principles rooted in anti-oppression, SJP supports the call to institute a Holocaust awareness week.”
Ilan Orzy, associate director of advocacy at Hillel Ontario, responded that “Hillel Ontario and Hillel Ryerson are very pleased to hear that SJP supports the call to implement Holocaust Education Week on campus, an issue that is very important to our students. Going forward, we hope that we can work together to prevent these issues from reoccurring.”
RSU president Obaid Ullah said he doesn’t believe a co-ordinated walkout took place, saying students left gradually, as the evening meeting wore on. “We’re a commuter school. It’s near exam time… It’s not like everyone left after the [Holocaust education week] motion.”
He said the RSU is investigating’ allegations that anti-Semitic or disparaging comments were made to Jewish students at the meeting, and that he’s met with Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi about the matter. “We’re trying to see if a punishment is needed. And we want to work proactively with the Jewish community on campus and make sure they feel safe and like the campus belongs to them.”
In an e-mail statement, Lachemi wrote that Ryerson “does not avoid controversies, difficult ideas, or disagreements over deeply held views” and that “freedom from harassment and discrimination goes hand in hand with the right to freedom of expression.” He stressed: “We condemn anti-Semitism, racism… and all forms of harassment and discrimination. We do not and will not tolerate hate speech on our campus.” Lachemi also said that the university will continue to “promote dialogue on education and vital issues such as these… to assure that Ryerson is an inclusive university for its richly diverse community.”
In a Nov. 30 Facebook post, the RSU apologized “for not being able to get through all of the motions,” adding: “We would like to confirm that the last motion 6.P regarding ‘Holocaust Education Week’ will be tabled at the next board meeting, along with the nearly 17 other motions that were not heard as quorum was lost. Motions of this nature can invoke many views, and we are thankful to our chair and anti-harassment officer for their support and we want to reach out to any students who would like to debrief about the meeting overall.”
Cooper’s motion proposed that in order to “learn about the value of pluralism and… the abuse of power by individuals, organizations and nations,” the RSU should either take part in the official Canadian Holocaust Education Week or devote a week to hosting events and education programs in remembrance of the Holocaust.
Her original motion, which was posted in advance of the meeting but revised by Cooper at the event itself, contained a clause stating that “this week is not in dedication to anti-Zionist propaganda” and a clause recommending that the RSU partner with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to create programs for the week.
After consulting with Hillel, Cooper said she omitted those two clauses from her revised motion and added several others, including one that said the proposed Holocaust education week should “focu[s] solely on the education of the Holocaust and not on other genocides which have taken place in the 20th and 21st century,” and another stating “that this week be devoted to Holocaust Education without the involvement [of] divisive political discourse.”
Cooper told The CJN that her original resolution was never read at the meeting, but the revised motion was projected on a screen and introduced into the record.
A student then opposed it, asking that it be amended to create a more general genocide education week, she said.
“I explained that Holocaust Education Week is very specific… that other universities have a week recognizing it as does the entire country,” said Cooper, noting that Ryerson already hosts a social justice week and “does other social justice activities throughout the year” and that “Holocaust Education Week [would be] a way to have Jewish voices heard.”
At that point, a large number of students walked out of the meeting, and when quorum was called, there were fewer than 100 students present, the minimum number required for a vote.
Cooper said about 200 students were present at the start of the meeting.
“This was a blatant display of anti-Semitism,” said Tamar Lyons, a second-year Ryerson student and a participant in the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship, a North American program that trains pro-Israel college students to work as pro-Israel student leaders on university and college campuses.
Lyons, who said she brought several friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to the meeting to support Cooper’s proposal, said the president of the MSA and the vice-president of SJP Ryerson told her at one point, “You need to sit down. There’s too many of you,” and that she believes they were referring to her being Jewish.
Lyons said she knew the clauses in Cooper’s original motion about “anti-Zionist propaganda” and working with UJA Federation would hinder the motion’s passing and that, regarding the former clause, “as much as we don’t agree with [anti-Zionists], we can’t stop people expressing their views.”
However, Lyons said what happened at the meeting “is a direct result of [the] boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] movement and the anti-Israel sentiment that’s so prevalent on campus.”
In 2014, the RSU endorsed BDS.
“This is the first time I’ve seen anti-Semitism like this on campus… the [students who walked out] were trying to hide behind [being anti] Israel, but when they couldn’t, they decided to act like children and walk out,” Lyons said.
Cooper said non-Jewish students reached out to her and other Jewish students expressing sympathy and support.