When Anthony Housefather saw the Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology presidents in the hot seat in a House committee hearing on Jew-hatred on campus, the Montreal-area federal parliamentarian thought something similar could be done in Canada.
The politician, who is Jewish, told JNS that he decided to put Canadian university presidents on notice. “They might be called to answer for it in public, like happened in the United States with the presidents of Penn, MIT and Harvard, who were very embarrassed,” he said. “That was my thinking.”
Housefather and four of his fellow Liberal caucus members co-signed a letter last week to presidents of 25 Canadian universities asking whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their institutional policies. The U.S. presidents testified to the House committee that the answer to that question depends on context. (Canada’s Liberal party is considered centrist.)
“The idea that antisemitism is not treated with the same rigor as other forms of hate needs to be addressed,” Housefather told JNS. “If someone writes back to me and says, ‘No, it depends on the context,’ that’s a university president that I want to call before the committee.”
He and his co-signers—former justice minister and attorney general David Lametti, Anna Gainey (representing a Montreal riding, or district), Ben Carr (a Winnipeg riding) and ex-public-safety minister Marco Mendicino hope that consequences for the indifferent or cavalier will also lead chairs and boards to resign, and for new policies to be enacted.
“In the same way the U.S. Congress can’t make the universities get rid of a president, but it happened at Penn, because they were embarrassed,” he told JNS. “They were named and shamed.”
The five members of Parliament plan to submit the responses they receive to their letter to a parliamentary committee on Jan. 20.
In the letter, they ask the university presidents whether calling for genocide against Jews, or eliminating the State of Israel, violates school policy. The parliamentarians also ask the school leaders what steps have been taken since Oct. 7 to protect Jewish students and whether they commit to reviewing their conduct codes to ensure proper procedures for addressing Jew-hatred on campus.
The letter also asked if the universities have measures to ensure that student groups and publications don’t become hostile to Jewish students and are taking steps to protect Jewish faculty and staff.
“Whereas a university campus should be a safe sanctuary, we hear instead from Jewish students who are afraid to go to campus or certain classes,” the letter states. It adds that many students were exposed to protests that called for “the elimination of the world’s only majority Jewish state.”
Students face “hostile environments” in classrooms, student groups and associations, “accompanied by a lack of action by university leadership to protect Jewish students,” it stated.
Housefather has also asked the justice committee, upon which he sits, to study antisemitism, particularly on campus.
“I realized that I, myself, could just make things happen without waiting for any government to do it,” he told JNS. He noted that having five signatories doesn’t imply that other members of Parliament weren’t asked, or that others refused.
“If I sent this letter to every Liberal MP, it would have taken me weeks to collect signatures and brought little value,” he said. “I wanted to do something quickly.”
At about the same time that the five parliamentarians penned the letter, they also vocally criticized Canada’s decision, with 152 other countries, to vote in favor of a Dec. 12 U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas.
In so doing, Canada had broken with its typical policy of voting with Israel. Ottawa had abstained during an Oct. 27 vote, when Bob Rae, its ambassador to the United Nations, said he could not support the resolution if it did not mention Hamas’s attack on civilians.
“My stance has been consistent throughout,” Housefather told JNS. “I don’t believe we should be calling on Israel to enter into a ceasefire with a terrorist organization that launched a pogrom against Israel, unless that terrorist organization lays down arms.”
Housefather said it’s fair to ask if Israel can further minimize harm to civilians. But “the idea that Israel would sit down and agree to a ceasefire with Hamas, who breached a ceasefire on Oct. 7,” he told JNS. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The United Nations resolution was inconsistent with that. “I don’t think we should have voted for it, and I pushed hard for us not to vote for it,” he told JNS. “I was not the only one.”
Housefather added that he has been permitted to speak his mind in the party and hasn’t faced pushback. “Nobody can force me to do something I don’t want to do, or say something I don’t want to say,” he said. “Our party is a microcosm of Canadians and made up of people all across the country with different views. Normally, we try to find ways to agree internally, but in a case like this, it’s clear we don’t all agree.”
JNS sought comment from the offices of the other signatories, but all either declined or did not respond by press time.
Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, issued a strong condemnation of Canada’s Dec. 12 vote at the United Nations.
“We’re disgusted and frankly shocked that only hours after issuing a statement that a ceasefire would only be possible under the condition that Hamas release the hostages, stop its use of Palestinians as human shields, lay down its arms and surrender its control of Gaza, Canada voted in support of a U.N. General Assembly resolution supporting a ceasefire,” he stated.
“Canada voted in support of a resolution that fails to hold Hamas accountable for its war crimes, fails to even condemn these war crimes and fails to call for Hamas to lay down its arms and surrender,” he added.
“I know first hand how challenging it can be for MPs to raise a dissenting voice in opposition to their own government’s actions,” wrote Michael Levitt, former Toronto-area Liberal parliamentarian who is now president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, on Dec. 15.
He tagged Housefather, Carr and Mendicino and named Lametti in the post.
A few days prior, he had written, “I am appalled to see Canada’s policy shift at the United Nations General Assembly today, that directly contradicts prior statements from this government, by supporting a resolution that failed to even condemn the terror group Hamas and the atrocities it perpetrated against innocent civilians on Oct 7.”
“Not the murder, not the rape and not the torture,” he wrote. “Denying Israel’s right to defend itself, as this resolution does, will not bring peace to the region but rather embolden the terrorists and those who fund the terror, namely Iran.”
The vote sends a “crystal clear message” to Jewish Canadians and Zionists “that the government does not have their backs,” he added. “This will not soon be forgotten.”