(December 14, 2021 / JNS) The University of Toronto will adopt all the recommendations from its working group on anti-Semitism at the school, but Jewish groups say the recommendations, and the report itself, don’t go nearly far enough to address an increasingly anti-Jewish atmosphere there.
Particularly concerning is the decision not to endorse any definition of anti-Semitism, including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by some 30 countries, including Canada, and was backed by many Jewish groups.
Calling the report a “path backward,” Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada said: “This report is beyond disappointing and demonstrates that U of T does not take anti-Semitism seriously.
“It is unfathomable that the IHRA definition was adopted by the Canadian government, as well as the Province of Ontario, but somehow remains ‘unworthy’ for this academic institution,” he said. “Hate and discrimination clearly persist at U of T, and Jewish students deserved a report to improve that anti-Semitic atmosphere.”
The University of Toronto convened the working group on anti-Semitism in December 2020 to address concerns from students and faculty that not enough was being done to combat Jew-hatred on its campuses. The release of the report on anti-Semitism comes just days after the Scarborough Center Student Union approved a measure that supports the BDS movement, which drew outrage after it banned “pro-Israel” kosher caterers. That ban was later walked back by the student union.
In a press release, the chair of the working group on anti-Semitism, Arthur Ripstein, who is a professor of law and philosophy at the university, said: “Our aim in drafting this report is to make realistic and actionable recommendations of the ways that the university can move forward in addressing it and to ensure that U of T is a place where Jewish members of the community feel safe and welcome.”
He stated that “the reason that we are not recommending the adoption of the IHRA, or other definitions, is that all of them are designed for different purposes. They are not suitable to the distinctive context of the university. Adoption of them would not integrate with the requirements on us and our other existing policy commitments.”
The group also spoke of the need for the university to keep to its commitment to academic freedom and advised that it not ban events, including those “events related to Israel and Palestine.”
“The protection of academic freedom and the broader place of the university in a democratic society requires the protection of unpopular views at every level of the university,” they wrote, saying that “as a place where controversial issues are addressed and debated, the university must not be seen to have taken a side simply by permitting a view to be expressed” or by inviting academic speakers from particular countries.
That recommendation, said Mostyn, will likely encourage those student groups and academics who present anti-Israel programming on campus to continue to do so.
‘Use own free-speech rights to educate about anti-Semitism, bigotry’
Other recommendations of the working group include ensuring that kosher food is readily available on its campuses and that allowances be made for the Jewish observance of major holidays without requiring proof of a person’s level of observance.
“While we thank the committee for putting forward this report, we remain concerned that the recommendations offered do not address the problems of anti-Semitism that students are facing on the ground,” said Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, director of policy at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The University of Toronto’s failure to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism shows a lack of commitment and courage in fighting the scourge of Jew-hatred that we have sadly seen rearing its ugly head on campus for years.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Steven Greenwood, executive director StandWithUs Canada. He noted that it remains unclear how the University of Toronto will be able “to effectively identify and address anti-Semitism if it cannot clearly define the different ways in which this bigotry manifests. Contrary to the misleading framing of the issue by the university’s working group, adopting such a definition does not mean banning campus events or denying the right to free speech. Rather, it enables university leaders to use their own free-speech rights to effectively educate about anti-Semitism and condemn incidents of this bigotry when they occur.”
The senior director of Hillel at the University of Toronto, Rabbi Ariella Rosen, posted a message on Facebook saying that “the time has come for the University of Toronto to take meaningful action to root out anti-Semitism and to ensure the campus remains a safe and welcoming place for all students. Hillel U of T is committed to working with university leadership to ensure the recommendations are fully adopted in a timely fashion. … Hillel will continue to work with our partners on campus to counter anti-Semitism, and prioritize the safety and well-being of Jewish students.”
In a press release tied to the report, university officials said they are “profoundly opposed to anti-Semitism” and “determined to ensure our campuses are places where members of the Jewish community feel that they are safe, included and respected as members and friends of the U of T community.”
Jewish groups, however, insist that there is no concrete way to do so if anti-Semitism isn’t defined in the first place.
“The report published by the University of Toronto Anti-Semitism Working Group hides behind misleading claims of ‘academic freedom’ and criticism of IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism to treat Jewish concerns with an extraordinary level of hesitation absent from similar University of Toronto reports on other minority groups,” said Douglas Sandoval, managing editor of CAMERA on Campus. “There is only one truly substantive recommendation in the entire report, while most of the rest simply suggest the university should treat anti-Semitism as seriously as other forms of discrimination.”
He added that “if the university was not taking anti-Semitism seriously before, then surely these recommendations are shockingly inadequate. Unfortunately, the report itself is a case study on how anti-Semitism continues to not be taken seriously.”
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