In an already-tense campus atmosphere, a union that represents part-time and contract faculty and staff at York University in Toronto distributed a 19-page, anti-Israel “Toolkit on Teaching Palestine” to teaching assistants.
The toolkit “reflects on our collective, moral and professional responsibility to speak, write and teach on Palestine in spite of the culture of fear that has dominated much of Western academic institutions,” per the education committee of a Palestine solidarity working group of Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903.
The union, which represents contract faculty, teaching and graduate assistants, and part-time librarians and archivists at York, distributed the materials to encourage its members to join a ceasefire “global strike week” from Jan. 21 to Jan. 28, called for by the Palestinian activist and filmmaker Bisan Owda. CUPE 3903 asked members to refuse “to abide by York University’s culture of repressive normalcy. Instead, let us collectively divert this week’s tutorials to teaching on Palestinian liberation.”
Not only is York repressive, but the union charged that the university is “complicit” in Israel’s occupation of Palestine and “genocidal violence.” It also singled out York’s “economic and academic relationships with various Zionist cultural institutions (e.g. Hillel) and Israeli universities (e.g. Hebrew University of Jerusalem), some of which are on U.N.-recognized illegally occupied Palestinian lands.”
As of August 2022, Arab students make up 17% of Hebrew University’s student body, some three percentage points below their representation in Israel’s citizenry.
In an X post that remains live, Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, wrote the day after Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack that on Thanksgiving, “I know I’m thankful for the power of workers, the power of resistance around the globe. Because resistance is fruitful and no matter what some might say, resistance brings progress.”
‘It’s a ploy, but one with a purpose’
Amanda Eskenasi Hohmann, 40, a teaching assistant at York who is instructing the humanities course “Animals in Popular Culture,” first saw the toolkit when JNS forwarded it, although she had heard about it beforehand.
“This is a stunt, for sure,” she said. “There’s no way that they thought this was a reasonable thing to suggest members should do in any sort of a contractual legal sort of way. It would put me in violation of my contract to do what they’re suggesting.”
The toolkit is “advocating for students to represent Hamas,” she stressed.
As an involuntary union member, Eskenasi Hohmann, who is Jewish, pays about $75 a month in dues. “I don’t see any return on that,” she said. “Instead, I see their time is spent on this garbage.”
The toolkit, she figures, gives “cover” to professors and teaching assistants who want to bring anti-Israel discussions up in class anyway. “There are a fair number who want to,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘It was a directive from my union.’ It’s a ploy, but it’s one with a clear purpose.”
Only a small percentage of York students are interested in activism while the average student finds it irritating, as Eskenasi Hohmann sees it. “They don’t care. This has nothing to do with them,” she said. “They just want to go and get their degrees with the minimum amount of costs and interruptions, and go home and start their career and their lives.”
Two years ago, while she was a second-year doctoral student, a Palestinian student accosted her in front of their professor and told her that if they were both in Israel, he would not hesitate to stab her.
“The professor did nothing,” she told JNS. “I escalated it to the president’s office. They did nothing. Nobody cares. That should have been instant expulsion.”
‘Toolkit reads like a political manifesto’
A spokesman for Hillel Ontario noted that since the war began, there have been some 400 antisemitic incidents—a threefold increase of years prior—across Ontario campuses, which represents 14,000 students.
“For the first time in our lifetimes, victims of genocide are live broadcasting the genocide of their people, the destruction of their culture and histories, and the deprivation of their basic access to sanitation, healthcare, food, shelter and education through Israel’s targeted attacks on Gaza’s vital infrastructure,” per the toolkit.
It states that without apparent intended irony, given that Hamas terrorists captured their barbaric attacks on live video via a technology called GoPro.
“The blatantly biased, so-called toolkit reads like a political manifesto. It presents a series of resources and an example of how to present the topic in class, including declaring an interest in ‘ending Canada’s and York’s complicity with genocide and the settler-colonial occupation of Palestinian land and life,’” noted the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Michael Mandel, 20, a third-year student at York majoring in Jewish studies and political science who is also a teaching assistant, found the toolkit disappointing but unsurprising.
“It has nothing to do with different classes we’re learning,” he told JNS. “Campus has just become quite a scary place to be right now. To be honest, it’s never been a very welcoming place.”
A fellow student told Mandel, who is Jewish, at a club fair a few weeks ago—where Mandel was presenting as the president of the Students Supporting Israel club—that he supports Hamas and that Israel has no right to exist.
“It’s definitely completely ridiculous—this toolkit,” said Yan Katcharovski, 27, a master’s candidate in engineering at York. He also told JNS that “the caveat is that because I’ve been there for so long, it’s not surprising to me.”
“Unfortunately, I’m already used to how things operate here, and I already have come to terms with the fact that I have to hide my identity,” he told JNS. “The new students at York—it must be a complete shocker. But it’s not a surprise. It’s obviously not pleasant, but I’m kind of used to it.”
Born and raised in Sderot, Katcharovski grew up hearing rockets and sirens. He has experienced antisemitism at York, as when fellow students “show their true colors” when he speaks at club booths.
“They may not say it upfront, but they will tell you that they don’t like Jews or that Jews should go away,” he told JNS.
Katcharovski counts himself lucky that he can pass, given his name, as Eastern European. “Nobody knows that I’m Jewish. My last name is not Goldstein or Schwartz or something,” he said. “When people ask, I just tell them my mom is Ukrainian and my dad is Russian. I know if I reveal I’m a Jew, it’ll ruin the relationship.”
A former Hillel intern, Katcharovski fears even visiting the Hillel office.
“It’s a matter of like—now I know where to go and where not to go, how to speak about myself and how not to, but obviously, I can’t reveal who I am, where I’m from,” he said. “I need to be very cautious and worried.”
‘Justifying violence against unarmed civilians’
“Many of our students, faculty, instructors and staff continue to be heavily impacted by the ongoing war in the Middle East, the resulting displacement and the humanitarian crises that are unfolding,” Rhonda Lenton, president and vice-chancellor of York, wrote to the school community on Jan. 30. “The loss of life and uncertainty about friends, family and respected colleagues is particularly painful for many of us.”
Lenton added that York’s senior administration “does not find the recent email communication from CUPE 3903, which provided teaching assistants across the university with ‘A Toolkit on Teaching Palestine’ calling for diversion of their teaching from the planned curriculum, to be in accordance with the rightful expectations of the university as an employer, the needs of the students and the legitimate claims of the community.”
York’s senior administration wrote to the union leadership directly “to discuss this important matter, especially in light of the rights of students to have access to their course curriculum,” she added. “As the CUPE 3903 communication specifically named Hillel, the university is also reaching out to them as one of our recognized student organizations supporting our diverse community.”
The Canadian campus has long been a flashpoint for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some five days after Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, three York unions issued statements supporting Hamas and calling the terror attack “a strong act of resistance.”
The York administration condemned the statement and said freedom of speech doesn’t extend to “promoting or justifying violence against unarmed civilians.”
An anti-Israel mural, titled “Palestinian Roots,” which remains on a wall of the school’s largest food court depicts a young man wearing a keffiyeh with two stones in his hand. He faces a bulldozer poised to fell a tree. The media executive Paul Bronfman pulled his financial support for the university over the picture, while antisemitic Pink Floyd frontman Rogers Waters defended it. (York has said that a separate board of directors for the student center makes decisions on the art.)
In 2019, anti-Israel students disrupted a campus event at York featuring reservists from the Israel Defense Forces. The activists chanted, “From Toronto to Gaza, globalize the intifada,” among other things.
The university did not respond by press time to JNS questions about its response to Jewish students at York.