York University is giving student unions a deadline to take remedial actions over a statement on Palestine/Israel amid tensions at the school

The concluding words of an update from York University, issued on Oct. 20, 2023.

On York University’s Keele campus in north Toronto, where daily protests are taking place in support of Palestinians, some Jewish students are avoiding attending class altogether out of fears around what may happen if they appear to be visibly Jewish and/or pro-Israel, according to Dean Lavi, the director of Hillel York.

“There’s been numerous students who have been, you know, ostracized in class for being visibly Jewish.” He gave an example of an Orthodox Jewish woman who attends classes in a small group situation.

“Her class is like 10 people and you have to sit at a table with three or four other people. A few days ago, she went into class and people just didn’t sit with her, literally didn’t sit with her because she was visibly Jewish. This isn’t a girl who’s, you know, vocal as a Zionist. It’s just a visible Jewish woman.”

The anxiety for Jewish students on campus was compounded by an Oct. 12 statement from the York Federation of Students (YFS) and two other student groups after the attacks by Hamas in Israel.

The statement, which the union has not amended or retracted, expresses solidarity with Palestinians, refers to the “settler-colonial apartheid state of so-called Israel,” and makes no mention of the Oct. 7 massacre of 1,400 Israeli civilians.  

York’s administration, led by president Rhonda Lenton, condemned the statement. In a response, the university said the student groups’ statement has been “widely interpreted as a justification for attacking civilians and a call to violence.”

On Oct. 20, university administration told student union leaders they suspect the groups breached student organization rules around openness and non-discrimination guided by diversity, equity, and inclusion principles.

The university has given the student unions until Oct. 25 to take remedial actions including a retraction, a public statement on antisemitism, the organization’s commitment to safety for all students, and an acknowledgement of harm. The university is also asking for the resignation of the student unions’ executive officers.

Alternately, if the unions claim there was no breach of the regulations, they must submit to a due process hearing which could result in the university revoking the groups’ official recognition.

“The air is very tense,” says Lavi, adding that York’s administration is “taking steps in the right direction, more so than they have in the past.”

“It’s also true at the same time that the statement put out by YFS makes it very clear to Jewish students that the student union is not speaking for them and is actively disenfranchising them,” Lavi notes.

York University has long been a flashpoint around Israel issues, most famously generating international media attention following a 2019 event that led to fists being thrown between supporters of Israel and those supporting Palestinians. 

According to Lavi, while York has increased security on the Keele campus and responded quickly to concerns “there’s only so much they can do.”

He mentions that in the most extreme examples of Jewish students clashing with supporters of Palestinians, hateful words and tropes (like “pigs”) do sometimes surface, frequently on social media. A poster outside Hillel York’s office was also torn down.

In one case, Lavi says, a student who replied to the unions’ statement on Instagram by commenting with an Israeli flag emoji received a message from someone who saw they attended York, and messaged them trying to start a fight.

Lavi also shared a flyer promoting a rally at York on Oct. 23 calling for “intifada until victory.” He says daily protests on campus have included groups chanting ‘Free Palestine’ inside buildings where lectures are taking place.

“They [protesters] have disrupted a few exams… they’re chanting as loud as they can. Jewish students in that class don’t feel safe, and I think there’s good reason for that.”

Randal Schnoor, a professor at York’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, teaches a course at the university that explores both Jewish and Muslim experiences in Canada by looking at antisemitism and Islamophobia here. While the course is not offered this term, he says he is speaking about current events in some of his Jewish studies classes, some of which include Muslim as well as Jewish students.

“I think it’s important to try to help people understand what the issues are, help them understand what the different points of view are,” Schnoor said in an interview with The CJN. “So that when they’re on campus and they see these demonstrations, like we had just a couple hours ago here, that maybe try to understand where they’re coming from and form their opinion in a more informed way as to what they think of it.”

Schnoor agrees with the position York administration has taken on the statement by the student groups.

“I’m very much for acknowledging suffering on all sides and trying to be open-minded to multiple perspectives. It’s very important to me. However, I did find the statement to be very problematic.

“I support the effort to ask the YFS and the other two unions to reflect more on their statements as organizations which are supposed to represent all the students. This was a statement which did not represent all the students and went quite far in one direction and not at all in another direction.”

Schnoor says teaching the course about antisemitism and Islamophobia, which he taught last year and plans to teach again in the coming year, has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for him and his students.

“[It’s been] very rewarding and satisfying for me, because I’ve been able to create an environment of respect and dialogue where these students have become genuine friends in and out of the classroom and have learned to listen to each other and try to understand another point of view.

“Just today a Jewish student [told me] he sees the issue differently in Israel and Palestine than he did before, and he really appreciated that.

“The important thing is to allow different views to be voiced as long as they’re done respectfully and so that people feel heard,” he said.

It’s also important to moderate conversations, if necessary, which he says hasn’t often been an issue in his classes.

“I think students can thrive when you give them that opportunity. They’re appreciative of it. They’re not used to a classroom as a place where they can be honest and share views that are a little bit hard to hear, in a supportive environment. And I think it’s quite possible to do, if done properly.”

Schnoor mentions he hasn’t had a chance “to get a sense of how Palestinian students or pro-Palestinian students are dealing with [current events]” and that many of them “are also feeling nervous and scared. It’s possible they are.”

“I think we need to realise when these wars and conflicts happen in Israel and Palestine has a direct effect on what’s happening here in terms of the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The three student unions behind the Palestine solidarity statement the university condemned—York Federation of Students, York University Graduate Student Association, and the Glendon College Student Union—have until 5 p.m. on Oct. 25 to take the remedial actions York laid out in its statement, or choose to engage in the due process hearing.

York Federation of Students did not respond to requests for comment from The CJN.