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Jewish law student, who asked University of Alberta to ensure her safety, in limbo at final-exam time

“I’ve been raising concerns about antisemitism on campus since Oct. 7,” Rachel Cook told JNS.

Rachel Cook during her first day as a student at the University of Alberta law school. Credit: Courtesy.
Rachel Cook during her first day as a student at the University of Alberta law school. Credit: Courtesy.

Rachel Cook, a first-year law student at the University of Alberta, asked the school in Edmonton on Nov. 29 about accommodations for Jewish students, such as she, who missed classes on antisemitic “days of rage” on campus during when she didn’t feel safe.

“I did not want those absences to count against my grades,” Cook told JNS. She also asked the university about supporting Jewish students and safety on campus.

“They agreed to get back to me on Dec. 1 and did not do so, leaving me a few hours before a final wondering if it was safe to go to campus,” she told JNS on Monday, three hours before her final was scheduled.

Half an hour before the start of the exam in a French class, Cook still had not heard back from the university. “If I don’t hear back, I will take the final and hope future employers recognize why my grades this term were affected,” she told JNS. “That being said, if there is any relevant threat to my safety, I will have to stay home.”

‘A fundamental part of my identity’

Cook, whose mother is Canadian and whose father is American, split her time between the two countries growing up but primarily lived in the United States. She moved to Canada permanently at 18 to attend the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, and she went to Carleton University in Ottawa for graduate school in political management.

“Being Jewish is a fundamental part of my identity,” she told JNS. “I believe my Judaism is giving me the strength to stand up against the system and the wave of hate. I am deeply proud of my Jewish identity and am honored when friends of other faiths include me.”

University of Alberta
A Christmas tree on display at the University of Alberta law school. Credit: Rachel Cook.

Cook was the subject of a Dec. 8 National Post article that noted when she saw Christmas decorations in a study space on campus, she asked the law school, called the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, to also install a menorah for Chanukah.

According to emails that JNS reviewed, James Muir, the law school’s vice dean, wrote back thanking Cook for “raising your concerns about the decorations in the Law Centre.”

“In light of the issues you have raised, we have decided to remove the tree from the David Percy lounge on Dec. 7,” Muir wrote. “We intended no religious message and so will remove the tree. We are also following up on university policies regarding decorations in December/January.”

Muir added that Cook could hold a Chanukah event, although special permission would be needed in certain places on campus to have burning candles.

She responded, saying that she didn’t have any concerns about Christmas decorations and noting that she enjoys the colors and lights, and “has found the decorations in the lounge to be quite pretty.”

She also noted that she knows most of her classmates aren’t Jewish and “given the bigotry often displayed towards practicing Christians by many secular organizations, I firmly believe in supporting my Christian classmates in their celebration, and I fully stand with them in doing so.” (She added that she took a candy cane from the vice dean the prior day when he was dressed as Santa.)

“I am saddened that your response to asking if a Chanukah menorah can be displayed alongside the other festive decorations in the student lounge is to decide to remove all decorations entirely,” she wrote. “In times where antisemitism is rising, especially on campus, framing a Jewish student’s request to display a menorah as a call to remove Christian decorations puts that student at risk of (continued) antisemitism.”

Muir wrote back, in part, that “the white wisterias, the green garlands, the hanging lights and the polar bears remain. We did not want to take away joy or light, but we wanted to be secularly festive in the decorations.”

Cook told JNS she has not heard anything further since the article was published. A faculty member, who contacted her to see if she was OK, couldn’t tell her anything further about what was going on behind closed doors.

“I have been raising concerns about antisemitism on campus since Oct. 7,” she said, referring to the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel. “Notably, they said they share my concerns about ‘the situation in Gaza’ and avoided mention of my concerns about the situation in Israel—as Oct. 7, which triggered the antisemitism, occurred in Israel, not Gaza.”

Two months of antisemitism, anti-Israel bias

Before Oct. 7, Cook told JNS that she had to fulfill specific requirements to obtain religious accommodations from the university’s law school to get Jewish holidays off and to avoid classes after Shabbat began on Friday nights.

University of Alberta
Scenes from an anti-Israel protest on the University of Alberta campus. Credit: Rachel Cook.

That included “having to write a letter explaining the tenets and scriptural basis of the Jewish faith, provide a letter from my rabbi, provide ‘documented proof of entrance of membership into the religious community’ and to swear an affidavit attesting all of my provided information was true, and I was ‘really’ Jewish,” Cook told JNS.

“This invasive documentation is required of all Jewish students at the University of Alberta. I believe having this documentation on file marked me in the minds of administrators and faculty as a Jew well before Oct. 7,” she said.

“Antisemitism and anti-Israel bias are institutional here,” she said.

She noted that the university fired Samantha Pearson as director of its sexual-assault center after Pearson signed an open letter denying that Hamas terrorists raped Israeli women.

Cook thinks Pearson “felt empowered by the culture I’ve witnessed at the University of Alberta, in general, and that includes the law center,” she told JNS.

Since Oct. 7, Cook told JNS she has documented many instances of antisemitism at the University of Alberta’s law school.

Those include Islamic Relief Canada—which has terror ties, per NGO Monitor, a watchdog—working with the Muslim Law Students Association on campus and an official student speaker saying at a scholarship dinner that “we” have a lot to learn from Palestinian resistance, Cook said.

In an Oct. 11 course taught by law professor Florence Ashley, whom the University of Alberta website calls an “award-winning transfeminine jurist and bioethicist,” Cook and classmates “were subjected to a 45-minute-rant” by the professor about how “criminal law protects BIPOC people from getting property that is rightly theirs,” Cook told JNS. (BIPOC refers to “black, indigenous, people of color.)

The professor ended by saying that “the system is like a roof infested with termites. To get rid of the termites, you must get rid of the roof,” Cook said. After complaining to the vice dean, Cook said she was given the chance to switch to another section of the course, which she did, “as I didn’t feel safe in the class.”

University of Alberta
Scenes from an anti-Israel protest on the University of Alberta campus. Credit: Rachel Cook.

“But moving courses in the middle of the term drowned me while preparing for 1L midterms,” she said. “Professor Ashley is still teaching and tweeting very anti-Israel things.”

The university told Cook that the professor’s comments are protected academic expression, she told JNS.

When she asked if a Jewish person would review her complaint, particularly the comment about termites—which she said reminded her of comments by Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader—Cook was told: “This is not something that is considered in the process, given that the provost or their delegate is conferred sole authority to review and assess the confidential complaint.”

When Cook asked a law-school administrator what was being done to keep Jews safe at a time when there were calls for intifada on campus, “the staffer told me he didn’t know what an intifada was,” Cook told JNS. At weekly protests on the university’s campus, she has documented calls for “From the river to the sea” and other antisemitic messages. She provided JNS with photos of several of those.

“I am hurt by the University of Alberta Law Centre administration’s silence,” Cook told JNS. “I am grateful for, among others, my Latter-Day Saint classmate who stopped me in the hall this morning and thanked me for standing up for their Christmas trees.” The classmate told Cook that “any Christian secure in their faith should not be scared of a menorah,” she said.

“A major theme of Chanukah is how light can dispel darkness and about being proud of Jewish customs in a non-Jewish world. I hope that both the refusal to display a menorah and a willingness to hurt Christians celebrating their faith shines a light on what I and many other students have experienced,” Cook added.

‘Students have received death threats’

University of Alberta
Scenes from an anti-Israel protest on the University of Alberta campus. Credit: Rachel Cook.

Asked what it feels like to be a Jewish student on campus, Cook replied with one word: “terrifying.”

“Throughout Canada, Jewish students have been subject to a wave of hatred. I talked to one student who removed his kippah because he didn’t want to be assaulted,” she said. “I know of students who have received death threats on campus.”

She’s heard of similar things happening elsewhere on Canadian campuses, including at York University in Toronto, the University of Toronto, Concordia University in Montreal and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

“I have been watching friends and colleagues across the country deal with wave after wave of hate,” she said. “I believe the treatment of Jewish students on campuses throughout Canada is systematically hostile.”

“I have felt very alone over the last two months, but the public support I have gotten over the refusal to display a menorah has shown me I am not alone,” she added. “I hugely appreciate it. If any student in North America feels alone, I hope this shows them they are not.”

After the interview had concluded, Cook told JNS that she decided to take the French final exam.

“They’ve assured me I’m safe. I am optimistic I am,” she told JNS.

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