Professors launch petition after faculty head blames ‘Zionist minority’ for hiring controversy

Photo of University of Toronto Law School
The University of Toronto Jackman Law Building

Four professors at the University of Toronto have started a petition calling for the head of their faculty association to be removed over remarks they call “blatantly anti-Semitic.”

Their petition is the latest chapter in the bitter debate over the potential hiring of Valentina Azarova to head the law school’s International Human Rights Program.

The campaign follows Terezia Zoric’s allegations at a town hall meeting last month that an “entitled, powerful Zionist minority” is behind opposition to the hiring of Azarova, whose writings have been highly critical of Israel.

Zoric, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association, also accused the unnamed Zionists of harassing and waging “psychological warfare” against Azarova’s supporters.

 Psychology professor Stuart Kamenetsky, one of the authors of the petition, said phrases like “powerful Zionist minority” are clearly anti-Semitic code words. They become doubly hurtful, when uttered by the head of an association representing more than 3,000 faculty and librarians at one of Canada’s most prestigious universities.

“Something like that is blatantly anti-Semitic and absolutely appalling to me,” Kamenetsky said in an interview. “It is typical anti-Semitic language and for it to come from the president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association at an official meeting is a new low.

“We have really reached a new low with this and that is why we have gone ahead with this petition,” he added. “What she said is just obscene.”

Zoric cited no specific incidents to illustrate her allegations and did not respond to requests for comment.

Toward the end of her remarks at the town hall meeting, she said that graduate students in the social justice program where she teaches have said they feel “targeted” if they try to discuss the controversial BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign against Israel or support for claims of Palestinian human rights abuses.

Louis Florence, a retired business professor and a former treasurer of the faculty association, says that’s a clear sign that Zoric’s comments are nothing more than anti-Semitism.

“What harassment is she talking about? I haven’t seen any,” said Florence, a co-author of the petition. “I think evidence of harassment is mostly in her mind. I very much doubt she has any evidence to support those claims and statements.”

The petition, which was also started by psychology professor Gillian Einstein and medical school professor Howard Tenenbaum, calls on Zoric to resign, for the university to “distance” itself from her comments and for the Canadian Association of University Teachers to lift its censure of the institution in light of Zoric’s remarks. The proposed actions echo those called for recently by David Matas, senior counsel to B’nai Brith Canada.

The Azarova controversy goes back to August, 2020, when she emerged from a field of 146 applicants as the preferred candidate to head the law school’s human rights program. Negotiations over terms of an employment contract were started and then suddenly ended.

The university said that was because of problems getting a work visa for Azarova. Her supporters, however, say a wealthy Jewish donor told school officials the Jewish community would not look kindly on her hiring.

That donor, Justice David Spiro of the Tax Court of Canada, was investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council. The probe concluded he had made errors of judgement, but they weren’t serious enough to merit removal from office. The decision is now the subject of an application for judicial review.

In the wake of the decision not to hire Azarova, the university has been placed under a censure by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which urges its members not to accept appointments, honours or speaking engagements at UofT until Azarova is hired.

A second hiring committee, chaired by the new dean of the law school, has said it has a “preferred candidate.”

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