Tuesday, January 25th | 23 Shevat 5782

December 8, 2021 12:12 pm

‘Israeli Apartheid’: University of Toronto’s Kosher Food Row Exposes Acceptance of BDS on Campus

avatar by Rachel O'Donoghue


University of Toronto Scarborough. Photo Credit: Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr.

Last month, the University of Toronto’s student union was embroiled in a scandal over its kosher food dining options.

The row started when the college’s Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU) proposed a resolution that stated, “efforts should be made to source kosher food from organizations that do not normalize Israeli apartheid.” It was noted, however, that an exemption to the rule would be considered in the event that “no alternative” suppliers are available.

Unsurprisingly, Jewish students and groups made clear their disappointment and outrage.

As Jewish on Campus, a group dedicated to combating antisemitism in higher education establishments, shrewdly noted: “It is only Jews who are subjected to the anti-Israel litmus test — in this case just in order to eat.”

The resulting furor forced the university’s president, Meric Gertler, to intervene and issue a statement describing the resolution as inconsistent with the university’s “core values of freedom of speech and inclusion,” adding: “A requirement that providers of food as a religious accommodation be required to apply for an exemption, or even be asked about their views about issues elsewhere in the world is unacceptable.”

This prompted the union to revise the original motion, by removing any reference to kosher food providers.

But while the eventual climb down by the SCSU may seem like a victory against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it actually exposed how antisemitism has become endemic on campus.

Furthermore, any idea that the response is one deserving of praise is an illusion, as the resolution proposed by the SCSU comes as a result of the University of Toronto systematically turning a blind eye to the pervasive culture of antisemitism — often performed under the guise of so-called “legitimate criticism of Israel” — that has taken root in one of Canada’s most respected colleges.

The school’s leaders refused to directly address the contents of a report that highlighted “systemic antisemitism on all three of its campuses,” which was compiled by B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights and submitted to university administrators in June 2020.

The report had been prompted by none other than a kosher food row.

In 2019, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) apologized for initially saying the group was reluctant to consider a motion submitted by Hillel members that asked for the union’s support in making food available for Jewish students on campus. Why? Because the union said that Hillel is “pro-Israel.”

The contents of the B’Nai Brith report can only be described as damning, with incidents detailed including:

  • An assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work who led her class in conducting a “Jew count” of faculty members. The academic never faced censure by UoT.
  • Anonymous antisemitic emails sent to a number of Jewish students, including one young person who received a death threat and was subsequently forced to leave campus after their continued presence was deemed a “security risk.” Campus police never identified who was responsible, and it was decided that a thorough investigation to contact the Internet Service Provider was “too much paperwork.”
  • A notorious Holocaust denier, Ken O’Keefe, was invited by the subsequently banned group, Modern Knowledge, to speak at the university’s JJR Macleod Auditorium. O’Keefe used the platform to claim “Jews control the corporate world, the bank sector, Hollywood, the mass media, the Supreme Court, the courts system, the financial system, and the political system.” In addition, he asserted the Holocaust myth” was invented by Jews in order to “steal Palestine from the Palestinians.”
  • The UTGSU’s BDS Committee invited activist Amanda Lickers to give a speech in which she accused “Zios” of controlling the housing market in Brooklyn, New York, while referring to Ashkenazi Jews as “Ashken-NAZIs” and “inherently racist, fascist, and colonialist.”

Yet, these are not even the most egregious examples of the University of Toronto’s leadership blithely ignoring blatant antisemitism and outrageous displays of anti-Israel hostility on campus.

In 2018, for example, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean History professor Jens Hanssen responded to an email sent by an Israeli student who had reached out for advice by accusing the student of being an agent of the Jewish state.

Detailing the disturbing exchange in an essay published online, Ari Blaff wrote:

“He then informed me that I had received instruction from something called ‘The Hasbara Handbook: Promoting Israel on Campus’ — a text I had never heard of, let alone read — about ‘how to approach professors, students and administrators and convince them that legitimate, non-violent criticism of the state of Israel amounts to discrimination against Jews everywhere.’ Hanssen continued: ‘In fact you [are] instructed to conflate Judaism and Zionism and are encouraged to give the impression on our campus that such criticism constitutes antisemitism.’”

The University of Toronto launched an investigation into the incident, which concluded after five months, and determined that while Hanssen’s email to Blaff had not been “civil,” it did not breach the college’s code against discrimination.

The letter — signed by acting vice-principal academic and dean Angela Lange — defended Hanssen’s outrageous accusations as an expression of “strong views,” adding that they are protected by the university’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

It is clear, then, that the latest incident of antisemitism is part of a distressing pattern of bigotry at the University of Toronto (see other such cases here and here). What’s more, it is a problem that the university’s leadership has either persistently disregarded or taken inadequate steps to address.

If anyone wants to know why students are so willing to openly express anti-Jewish prejudice, they need only look at the academic leaders from whom they take their cues.

The author is a writer-researcher for HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias, where a version of this article first appeared.

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