York University’s student union had a pro-BDS group talk to them about antisemitism

(This story was first published on Sept. 27 and updated on Sept. 30 to include new information.)

Jewish organizations at Toronto’s York University were outraged that a group which supports boycott and sanctions against Israel was chosen to provide antisemitism training for the university’s student leaders—and on a Jewish holiday.

The university’s administration also expressed its displeasure with the situation and urged the York Federation of Students (YFS) to postpone the program, which ultimately proceeded as scheduled.

Independent Jewish Voices of Canada (IJV), which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, was selected to lead an education session for YFS’s board members on Sept. 28, which fell on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret.

YFS conducts regular anti-racism training for its board. While antisemitism has not been a part of that training, Jewish groups have urged the federation to include it, said Taylor Levy, a student at York and a Hasbara Fellow.

IJV is a fringe group that does not represent the majority of Canadian Jews who are Zionists, Levy told The CJN.

Selecting IJV “fits YFS’s perception of what it means to be Jewish, when YFS is not a Jewish organization,” Levy said. “Choosing a group that continually diminishes Jews who do believe that Israel should exist is very tokenizing.”

YFS had asked Hillel at York to provide a list of educators who could provide antisemitism training, said Jay Solomon, chief spokesperson for Hillel Ontario.

Hillel provided the list and Yavilah McCoy, the CEO of Dimensions Inc., a Boston-based non-profit that provides training in diversity, equity and inclusion, was to be the speaker, but that changed late last week.

McCoy, a Jewish woman of colour whose career spans two decades and has been called a “pioneer of the Jewish diversity and equity movement,” was in Toronto in 2018 to work with students, Hillel Ontario staff, and administrators at the University of Toronto.

The group that was selected is “entirely not representative of mainstream Jewish voices,” said Solomon.

“The actions of the YFS are quite clear. They’re seeking to control the narrative (and) the way antisemitism is explained in order to justify their own problematic behaviour.”

Hillel at York met on Sept. 27 with university administration and was encouraging concerned students to contact the YFS.

“The reality is that the exclusion of representative voices from this important process would be inexcusable in the context of any other marginalized community,” said Solomon. “We’re calling on Jewish students to make their voices heard…that they’re outraged by the direction the YFS is taking.”

York administration also expressed displeasure with the last-minute change in speakers and urged the YFS to postpone its training session.

“We are disappointed to learn that not only has YFS not selected a trainer from the list Hillel provided, but further, that YFS has decided to hold the antisemitism training session on a Jewish holiday,” according to a statement from Barbara Joy, chief spokesperson for the university.

Joy said York is “very concerned that YFS has turned away from its commitment to work together with Hillel on this important initiative to building confidence that YFS is seeking an inclusive and collaborative relationship with Jewish students.”

She said the result of “withdrawing” from that commitment is “to risk many students feeling left out, hurt, and unrepresented by the leadership of their student union.”

Joy said the university urged YFS to postpone the antisemitism training session “in order to fulfill its own commitment to collaborate with Hillel, and uphold its shared responsibility to an inclusive and respectful university community.”

A report by retired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell investigating a 2019 speech that prompted violent clashes between pro-Israel and Palestinian supporters at York called for clearer definitions on what constitutes discrimination, harassment and antisemitism and for better education for student leaders on these issues. The report was adopted by the university in June 2020.

Members of York Federation of Students did not respond to requests for comment by The CJN’s pre-holiday deadline on the afternoon of Sept. 27.

Independent Jewish Voices said in a statement issued Sept. 30 that the training for the YFS proceeded without incident and that no one who was involved objected to the fact that it was held on a Jewish holiday.

IJV said it could not speculate why the speaker was changed at the last minute, but noted that Hillel requires its members to support Israel “whereas IJV believes antisemitism can only be defeated by allying with other anti-racist movements, including those for Palestinian liberation.” Neither Hillel, nor the university administration has “the jurisdiction” over who the YFS chooses to run workshops, IJV stated.

“It would make no sense for the York Federation of Students, an organization dedicated to human rights and equality, to invite facilitators who seek to delimit the bounds of criticism of a racist state to lead an antiracism workshop.”

(This story was first published on Sept. 27 and updated on Sept. 30 to include new information.)