University of Toronto’s downtown campus student union endorsed a boycott of Israel with a close vote

A social media posting from Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

The student union at the University of Toronto’s downtown St. George campus endorsed a call to boycott Israel at a special meeting Feb. 16. The measure passed with a slim majority of 56 votes.

The resolution calls on the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) to “wholly divest funds (and) further on forbid investment to firms complicit in the occupation of Palestinian Territory.”

The motion’s clumsy wording left some Jewish advocates confused about its ultimate intent, but they still rejected it as another antisemitic vote disguised as anti-Zionism.

“I am disappointed that once again, the UTSU has decided to stoke the flames of antisemitism, rather than working to improve the student experience,” said Hillel student leader Evan Kanter in a news release following the decision. “It saddens me that prospective students considering UofT will have to wonder ‘Am I welcome here as a Jew? Will I have a student union who cares to represent me, though I’m Jewish?’”

Hillel Ontario spokesperson Jay Solomon added “We are deeply concerned that student unions at the University of Toronto continue to single out Israel and demonize Jewish self-determination. The university has committed to taking tangible steps to curb antisemitism on campus—and the time for action is now.”

Naena Drazman, East Coast assistant campus coordinator of StandWithUs Canada and the president of Students Supporting Israel at the University of Toronto added: “Discriminatory motions of this nature are unacceptable. Boycotting the Jewish state does nothing to foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians and ultimately denies Jews rights to self-determination.”

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, policy director of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center Canada, called for strong and clear action by university administration.

“There must be decisive action and a commitment from the University of Toronto administration to address the antisemitism that’s being perpetrated on its campuses, as time and time again, we see student unions and groups contributing to growing division and hate toward Jewish faculty and students who support Israel,” she said in an email. “Last night’s vote is testament to the disappointing reality that antisemitism is alive and well at UofT, which needs the full attention of President (Meric) Gertler and the administration.”

In a news release before the vote, B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said the resolution is another reflection of a “broadly antisemitic environment” at the university.

“It is no surprise that further resolutions targeting the world’s only Jewish state are being proposed by student unions. The university administration’s inaction on this issue makes a mockery of its ‘entrustment’ ceremony earlier this week of the deeply flawed Antisemitism Working Group report.”

That report, tabled late last year, included eight recommendations calling for increased education around antisemitism, giving the university’s equity office responsibility for those efforts, ensuring kosher food is readily available on campus, prohibiting student organizations from linking support for Israel to access to services and appointing a university advisor on antisemitism. It also recommended against adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

The decision not to endorse the IHRA working definition only complicates the effort to combat antisemitism, StandWithUs Canada said after the vote.

“Today’s events highlight the inadequacy of the university’s choice not to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. It’s hard to fight antisemitism if we have to keep convincing people how it’s defined,” Kanter said.

Graduate student Kayla Shainhouse, who brought the motion to public attention through a Facebook post, said in a posting after the vote she was “saddened and shocked” by the decision.

Wednesday’s vote is the latest in a series of events at UofT that have riled Jewish organizations.

In November, the student union at the Scarborough campus endorsed a resolution to stop using kosher food providers who “support Israel apartheid.” The group later walked back that call.

In 2019 an official of the Graduate Students Union said it likely would not support a Hillel effort to make more kosher food available on campus “since it is pro-Israel.” The GSU later apologized for the comment.

Incidents like that, Shainhouse said on Facebook, show “anti-Zionism as a vicious manifestation of antisemitism. Hiding behind the Israel-Palestine conflict does not negate that you are harming Jewish students on campus and removing their basic need of food in the name of a conflict which the depths of it are far beyond the knowledge Instagram has given you.”

A university spokesperson said in an email that the student union is an autonomous organization which operates independently from the university and “has no role in the selection of catering providers at the university.”

Students Union president Alexa Ballis did not respond to emailed and telephoned requests for comment.