U of T student union apologizes to Hillel over ‘anti-Semitic’ email

University of Toronto (bobistraveling/flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) issued an apology on Nov. 17, for an email sent by its external commissioner, which implied that the union would not support the local Hillel chapter’s campaign for more kosher food options on campus because of Hillel’s support for Israel.

Even though the original email, which was sent on Nov. 14, was not an official rejection of the campaign, as it appeared to many people at first, a number of Jewish groups are saying that it is indicative of anti-Semitic undercurrents on university campuses.

According to the union’s statement, the original emails were exchanged between a Jewish UTGSU board member who wanted the executive committee to introduce a motion supporting Hillel’s Kosher Forward campaign at the next board meeting, and the external commissioner, who’s a member of that committee. The external commissioner responded by saying that the motion could be submitted directly.

However, according to a statement from Hillel on Nov. 15, the external commissioner also said the union would be unlikely to support the motion because Hillel is pro-Israel, and that “the executive committee strives to abstain from this type of discourse in order to ensure the will of the membership is accurately reflected in any votes on these motions.”

Neither Hillel nor the union would release the name of either party.

In its statement, Hillel argued that conflating Jewish people and organizations with the actions of Israel is anti-Semitic, especially when Israel isn’t related to the issue at hand.

“The ‘type of discourse’ and the ‘will of the membership’ being referred to (in the external commissioner’s email) is left unclear. If ‘the will of the membership’ entails not supporting a campaign undertaken by a religious minority group on campus to gain access to food that they can eat, the UTGSU is failing in its mandate to support the interest of minority groups on campus,” Hillel’s statement read.

“Hillel strongly condemns this sort of rhetoric, which associates support of the State of Israel with a campaign to make campus more accessible for Jewish students.”

In its apology, UTGSU clarified that the external commissioner’s email was not sent on behalf of the union’s executive and did not represent an official decision (the board will deliberate on the issue at its next meeting). The union also acknowledged that the external commissioner’s response “has unintentionally caused harm towards the Jewish community at U of T … the UTGSU executive committee is nonetheless deeply sorry for this harm.”

According to the statement, the executive committee has also reached out to Hillel to discuss “how to remedy harm and how to mitigate future harm towards Jewish students on campus.”

Marc Newburgh, the CEO of Hillel Ontario, said the UTGSU’s apology is “the beginning of a long-overdue conversation about the toxic environment for Jewish students that the union has allowed to fester.” He said that he looks forward to meeting with the executive committee, but that he was disappointed by what the apology didn’t say.

“Unfortunately, the statement does not address the underlying anti-Semitism in the original response, and we hope that the UTGSU will address this matter directly. Regardless of the UTGSU’s intention, this is a clear example of how BDS activity creates an unsafe environment for Jewish students. Hillel UofT and Hillel Ontario have worked tirelessly to support students in countering the divisive effects of the UTGSU’s BDS committee since its creation,” Newburgh wrote in a statement to The CJN.

According to a press release from B’nai Brith Canada, UTGSU is the only student union in Canada with a BDS committee. B’nai Brith said it contacted university administrators on Nov. 17, asking them to condemn the external commissioner’s statement, work to make more kosher food options available and expedite a complaint against the BDS committee for, among other things, violating the school’s anti-discrimination policies.


UPDATE: The external commissioner resigned from their role after the UTGSU executive met with Hillel. The union released a statement after the meeting acknowledging and apologizing for the anti-Semitism in the original email and committing to taking anti-oppression training addressing anti-Semitism.