A month into the new academic year, Toronto’s York University is attempting to restore the confidence of the Jewish community after anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist harassment and intimidation dominated its campus last year.
Canada’s third-largest university is believed to have between 4,000 and 5,000 Jewish students, comprising about 10 per cent of its student body. Until recently, it was considered a particularly welcoming environment for Jewish faculty members and students, housing Canada’s first Centre for Jewish Studies and offering a Jewish teacher education programme, whose graduates fill the local Jewish day schools. It is situated close to major Jewish areas and its original faculty and leadership were heavily Jewish.
Yet there is lingering bad feeling over a nasty climate for Jewish students in 2008-2009.
“Many Jewish students were afraid to express their affinity for Israel,” said Howard English, UJA’s vice president for corporate communications. “And some, though I’m not sure it was a majority, were afraid to be visibly Jewish.”
In June, B’nai Brith Canada published an advertisement accusing the university of becoming “infamous for enabling rabid anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment”, and allowing Jewish students to become marginalised and intimidated.
The critics received a boost from Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, who, at a fundraiser for a Jewish day school last month, said that acts “reminiscent of the ancient pogroms” were directed at Jewish student community organisations at York.
The anger largely stems from an incident last February, which started as a protest against student government involving Jewish students, but morphed into a crowd of 100 protestors barricading students in the Hillel lounge, shouting anti-Jewish and anti-Israel slogans.
Toronto Police had to be called in to escort the students out of the lounge.
The next day, emotions were further inflamed by a demonstration by Students Against Israeli Apartheid, and a counter-demonstration by Jewish students.
Those two events led York’s president to create a task force to seek ways of protecting free speech without causing conflict. The task force presented its final report last month.
Both UJA-Federation, Toronto’s umbrella Jewish organisation, and Hillel at York, seemed pleased with the result, saying that the report incorporated several of their suggestions, and that the administration is now willing to act on them.
“But Jewish students on campus are still anxious and concerned about the recurrence of last year’s climate,” said Matan Hazanov, president of Hillel.
He said his group will be watching and working closely with the administration so that no Jewish student feels intimidated.
But even if York succeeds in creating a better experience for Jewish students, some in the community may not forgive. They point to the administration’s decision to end its 34-year practice of cancelling classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In addition, in April, the university hosted a conference which had been scheduled long before the tension began, examining a one-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is still unclear how the events have impacted Jewish enrolment, as York is still coping with the fallout of a three-month strike last year which affected enrolment across the board. But anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish students are beginning to steer away from what was once Canada’s most popular university for the community.