Anti-Israel demonstration at York University, Dec. 13, 2019. (SAIA/Facebook) (SAIA/Facebook)
Anti-Israel demonstration at York University

“Perhaps I was foolish to think that six months ago, speaking with York administrators would bring about change. But I still believe York has a chance to do better. For all of us.”

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

Jewish students are increasingly alarmed that Toronto’s York University is turning a blind eye to campus antisemitism.

In September, the York Federation of Students (YFS), which represents the university’s 53,000 undergraduates, tapped Independent Jewish Voices of Canada (IJV) to provide antisemitism training for student leaders. The problem? The IJV supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

Jewish students slammed the student federation, pointing out that the BDS movement is itself antisemitic and that IJV does not represent mainstream Jewish views.

Adding insult to injury, the IJV’s antisemitism training took place during the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, when traditional Jews would have been unable to participate.

Then, on October 22, Professor Cornel West delivered the keynote address at a YFS event called “Dismantling Racism in Our Lifetime.” West, until recently, taught African-American studies at Harvard, before resigning in a dispute over tenure. West claimed he was turned down because of his support for BDS.

Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, told United With Israel by email, “It is unacceptable to see the glorification of anti-Jewish violence at Canadian universities. If administrators are unwilling to act, it will become incumbent for government to do so.”

The following open letter to York University was written by York student Taylor Levy, who is also active with Jewish On Campus, an organization that “seek[s] to revive pride in Judaism by emboldening a new generation of Jews through education, social media campaigning, and grassroots organizing.”

An Open Letter to York University

I wish I didn’t have to sit down and write an email to the administration on behalf of the Jewish community at York (again). Six months ago, I was optimistic about the future of our community. Six months ago, I met with you and other administrators to discuss the climate at York for Jewish students. Unfortunately, the climate has only gotten worse.

Let’s put this in context. The first day back on campus in over a year and a half I bore witness to antisemitic graffiti, which was never condemned by the university at large. The lack of condemnation allows individuals to feel comfortable in expressing antisemitic views. Then, Cornel West was chosen to be the keynote speaker for the York Federation of Students (YFS) event, Dismantling Racism in our Lifetime. I sat there and listened as he went on a rant that was rooted in a modern manifestation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, where he referred to a world Jewish conspiracy.

This past Friday, YFS completed their Xpressions Against Oppressions events. At the final webinar, Resistance of the Oppressed, the student government welcomed so-called activists from different marginalized groups. I immediately brought my concerns to the administration after reading how the event would discuss armed resistance as the “only viable means of fighting back.” As a Jewish student, this description immediately made me wary of what was being promoted.

Because at a public Canadian university, my student government surely would not incite violence in any way, right?

Universities have an obligation to ensure both the emotional and physical well-being of its students. Discomfort is not the same as unsafe. To minimize my concerns in this way is to essentially dismiss the university’s obligation to students.

There is a difference between freedom of expression and inciting violence or hatred. In my opinion, the language used in the event veers dangerously close to hate propaganda. The speakers did not “challenge my views.” The panel was – and I quote here from a panelist – “meant to highlight armed resistance.” This is not about my views. This has to do with the incitement of violence.

When I speak, it is done on behalf of the Jewish community in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. Because if I don’t speak out, who will? While I did not have to attend the event, I knew that if antisemitic or hate speech occurred, it would have gone unnoticed. I willingly put myself in a position that was uncomfortable, but this goes beyond myself and my feelings. I listened to speakers who justified the intifadas and terrorism as a means to “resist.” I listened to speakers undermine the Jewish lived experience and applaud the “freedom fighters” who are in fact, terrorists.

This event sets a precedent for what could happen on campus (and elsewhere) for any group. The language used throughout the event reinforces hateful rhetoric and that is not acceptable – not towards the Jewish community or any marginalized community. While it may have been online, the antisemitic rhetoric expressed will absolutely not remain relegated to the virtual world. What happens online does not stay online. To allow this violent rhetoric to go unchecked will be to condone any violence that may quite possibly result from the lack of condemnation.

Perhaps I was foolish to think that six months ago, speaking with York administrators would bring about change. But I still believe York has a chance to do better. For all of us.

I ask you to reevaluate your response to this situation. I am always available if you would like to discuss this further. Thank you very much for your time and attention to this.

Taylor Levy