U of T professors unhappy with president’s response to anti-Semitism on campus

Prof. Howard Tenenbaum

Jewish faculty at the University of Toronto are angry with the school’s president, Meric Gertler, after their request for a meeting to discuss anti-Semitism on campus was ignored.

An ad hoc group of Jewish professors and lecturers, mostly in the medical and dental faculties, had asked for a meeting  after the University of Toronto’s Graduate Students Union (UTGSU) signaled it would not support an effort by Hillel to introduce kosher food  on campus.

UTGSU backtracked from that position, apologized and the “external commissioner” who made a comment saying Hillel’s pro-Israel position would likely lead the UTGSU to not support kosher food, resigned. On Jan. 23, Hillel announced that kosher food would be available on campus, but that has not satisfied the Jewish educators.

They say there is a climate of anti-Semitism at the Toronto school, reflected in the UTGSU’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) movements.

Prof. Howard Tenenbaum, spokesman for the ad hoc Jewish professors group, said he and other faculty have heard from Jewish students who feel uncomfortable on campus and intimidated because of the BDS and IAW campaigns, waged by the UTGSU

The university is not doing enough to address it, Tenenbaum told The CJN. Moreover, a letter sent to Gertler, signed by 80 professors, was ignored. The professors never had the courtesy of a reply, he said.

Tenenbaum said the impetus for the original letter came when after the UTGSU refusal to endorse kosher food on campus, but the climate of anti-Semitism goes back much further.

Their letter to Gertler says that “Since 2012, when the UTGSU endorsed the antisemitic BDS movement and committed student funds to this discriminatory campaign through the formation of the BDS Committee – dedicated solely to the delegitimization of the world’s only Jewish state – the situation on campus for Jewish students has continually worsened, culminating in this most recent episode.

“If the University of Toronto is serious about combating antisemitism on campus, as you yourself committed your office to doing in the pages of The CJN in September (2019), now is the time to make due on that promise. We must take serious, unrelenting, and uncompromising action to combat the world’s oldest hatred being demonstrated at the University of Toronto right now.”

The letter went on to make several suggestions, including: condemning as anti-Semitic the UTGSU’s actions regarding kosher food, investigating the UTGSU for anti-Semitism and adopting the definition of anti-Semitism set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Guidelines associated with that definition describe anti-Semitism as denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination and applying double standards to Israel that are not applied to other democratic nations.

Tenenbaum said since sending the letter to Gertler on Nov. 18 the professors have met with B’nai Brith Canada to coordinate further action. The ad hoc group now plans to reach out to more Jewish U of T professors, teaching assistants and others – perhaps a few hundred –  and send another letter to Gertler,requesting a meeting with him.

Ultimately, the professors want the university to adopt the IHRA definition and to apply it to end BDS efforts on campus and abolish the IAW campaign. Both are anti-Semitic in nature, he said.

Responding to queries from The CJN, including a question whether Gertler would meet with the professors, a U of T media spokesman stated, “The President has reviewed the (professors’) letter. The group has raised a number of concerns and there are plans for the university to follow up.”

After noting the university had worked with students to secure kosher food at three locations on campus, the spokesman went on to distance the university from the student group.

“The UTGSU is an autonomous student organization that acts independently from the University of Toronto … All such autonomous organizations are required by the university’s policies to operate in an open, accessible and democratic manner, including a commitment to equity and to allowing a diversity of perspectives to be heard.

“We have written to the UTGSU to remind them of this obligation. We note that UTGSU has issued an apology and taken other actions.

“The University of Toronto is strongly committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. Our Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office and our Multi-Faith Centre, among other services and initiatives on all three campuses, challenge anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination. We encourage all members of the university community to demonstrate our shared responsibility to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.”

Prof. Stuart Kamenetsky, one of the signatories of the letter to Gertler, called the university’s response inadequate.

“As always, the U of T’s answers are nothing but cowardly and evasive,” he said.

“I feel that the U of T is not dealing with this issue in good faith, is disrespectful to the prominent faculty involved – not even agreeing to meet with us –  and is unprepared to admit serious problems that it is actually aware of.

“There is no implication whatsoever that the U of T in general (staff, students, polices and procedures) are anti-Semitic. Rather, the administration, by not taking strong leadership against small hateful groups, is providing a platform for anti-Semitic hate that has not only made life for Jewish students on campus difficult, but also increasingly tarnishing the university’s reputation,” Kamenetsky, a professor of psychology, stated.