The move violates the university’s own event policy and sets a dangerous precedent, students and faculty say.
On 27 October, the University of Toronto’s Graduate Student Union — representing nearly 16,000 students — launched the UofT Divest campaign. The initiative calls on the administration to pull its investment from three companies that profit from Israel’s military occupation and settlements.
The event was organized to educate the campus community about the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, and to gather signatures supporting divestment via an online petition.
During the launch event, speakers were aggressively interrupted by members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL).
A spokesperson for the JDL admitted in The Varsity, University of Toronto’s newspaper, that some of its members attended the event. Students recognized some of the JDL members who had confronted and harassed them at previous Palestine-related events.
The university administration eventually gave campus police an order to call off the event in progress.
Instead of protecting the rights of the speakers and organizers to hold the event, it appears that the university capitulated to the efforts of the JDL to have the event shut down.
Chris Webb, a student and event organizer, told The Electronic Intifada that the response by the administration to the event was “part of a pattern of what universities have been doing across North America for a while … at [the University of Toronto], for a long time now, they’ve tried to prevent pro-Palestinian events from happening.”
Although designated as a “violent extremist organization” in the US, the Jewish Defense League operates freely in Canada.
Webb said that the group, which has been increasing its presence in the city of Toronto, “is banned in a number of countries. [It is a group] that has no place on campus and has no support from students on campus.”
When Hazem Jamjoum, a University of Toronto alumnus and current doctoral candidate at New York University, began his lecture and was heckled by a JDL member at the 27 October divestment launch, the event’s chairperson issued three warnings to each disrupter, in accordance with university policy.
The disrupters ignored the warnings. When the chairperson asked the JDL members to leave the room in order for the event to continue, they attempted to physically prevent campus security officers from reaching them, according to a statement issued by members of the graduate students’ union.
JDL members then hurled Islamophobic, racist and sexist insults at the speakers, heckling members of the audience and physically intimidating women in particular, witnesses say. Security failed to escort the disrupters out of the room, according to students.
“[A] JDL supporter told one of our speakers to cover her head with a burqa or she’d get acid thrown on her face in Palestine,” Webb said in the statement. “They accused her of being a member of ISIS, after which they asked her whether she enjoyed beheadings.”
According to eyewitnesses, campus police officers called a recess after the disruptions occurred, and the event organizers and members of the audience were asked to move out of the room into the hallway.
After about an hour, the administration then issued a directive to campus security to call off the event entirely.
Participants then found a smaller room to continue speaking about the campaign without the administration’s support or security.
Supporters of the event and members of the graduate student union say that by allowing the hate group to effectively prompt the administration to shut down an event on campus, it is bound to happen again.
Critics of the administration’s handling of the incident also point out that canceling the event violates University of Toronto’s 1992 policy on the disruption of meetings. The policy states that the university should use “whatever measures are needed to ensure that the meeting takes place,” including providing security and considering injunctions against those who might prevent the event from happening.
Push to chill debate
Students and faculty are acutely aware that the administration is not supportive of the growing campaign for divestment from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation, and are convinced that the way the event was handled is part of an expanded push to chill campus debate on Palestine.
A day after the cancellation of the event, more than two dozen members of university faculty and staff signed a letter to Angela Hildyard, the university’s vice president of human resources and equity, “demanding answers and accountability for how [the] disruption was handled,” reported The Varsity.
Students asked that the JDL be banned from campus.
Hildyard responded about a week later, but refused to address the specific concerns around the JDL and future events.
A separate letter was also sent to the administration by members of the University of Toronto’s Graduate Student Union demanding action from the university administration to ensure students’ safety and free speech rights at campus events.
The administration replied to the students’ letter one month later, on 28 November, acknowledging the disruption and claiming that academic freedom and freedom of speech “are core values” of the University of Toronto.
In its letter, seen by The Electronic Intifada, administration offered an alternative timeline of events, claiming that it tried to find an new location before a decision was made to call off the event. However, according to multiple students’ accounts, the event was shut down by the administration before students themselves found a different room in which to reconvene.
The University of Toronto also claims that “it has not been possible to verify the individual identities of the disrupters,” even though there was a heavy campus police presence at the event. The JDL members remained inside the venue when everyone else had come out into the hallway, presumably giving police enough time to gather details to help identify them.
Campus police threatened
The JDL also issued threats against campus police officers, according to students. However, the administration did not call in the Toronto city police to remove the JDL members.
Susanne Waldorf, an organizer with the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union and a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigner, told The Electronic Intifada via email that “The main campus policeman who I spoke with had said that they couldn’t remove [the JDL members] because of their threats of violence against the campus police.”
The administration has still refused to say why the city police were not called.
The administration also says it will “consider issuing a trespass notice or general ban” against the JDL only “if there are future violations of this kind by members of this organization” — giving the hate group at least a second chance to disrupt and shut down a future event before even considering any formal injunction.
Waldorf said that the administration has not offered to meet with the event organizers ”to further understand what happened that evening.”
“Some of the details they provide are incorrect and seem to be attempts to cover up the fact that they attempted to unilaterally cancel a [University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union] event on 27 October,” she explained.
The University of Toronto has ignored requests for comment by The Electronic Intifada.
Meanwhile, the university insinuated in its letter that future security measures will have to be financially covered by student organizations. Students say that is a tactic that could bankrupt student groups and increase their already-tight financial burden in holding events.
“Depending on the circumstances, where it is reasonable to assume that additional security resources will be required, the costs of such additional resources may become the responsibility of those sponsoring the event,” the administration stated.
Liz Jackson of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support told The Electronic Intifada that imposing security fees on Palestine solidarity groups on campus “is an alarming trend in the administrative repression of Palestine advocacy on campus.”
Jackson added that “imposed security fees also allow for a ‘hecklers’ veto’ — meaning that opponents can slap prohibitive costs onto SJP by merely threatening to cause trouble.”
Two years ago, the University of Toronto’s Graduate Students Union held a successful vote in support of the BDS campaign, and has been working to put sustained pressure on the university to abide by students’ demands for divestment. Ninety-seven percent of the graduate students voted in favor of that 2012 resolution.
UofT Divest says that the university has invested more than $3 million in Hewlett-Packard, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. These three US-based companies sell weapons and surveillance equipment to the Israeli military.
The University of Toronto is also involved in academic partnerships with Israeli institutions, including one between its Munk School of Global Affairs and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Fifteen political science graduate students from the Munk School travel every year to study at Hebrew University. Campaigns have been steadily growing across Canada in support of an academic boycott, which seek to sever the institutional links between Canadian and Israeli universities.
Students told The Electronic Intifada that the action by the university to shut down the 27 October event is not new, nor surprising. There have been numerous obstacles that campus Palestine solidarity groups have faced from the administration for years, including booking space for events.
Dr. Rand Askalan, assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s department of pediatrics, told The Electronic Intifada that this kind of treatment by the university is not meted out against other student groups and campaigns.
Askalan said that there is an increasing interest by students and faculty in joining the BDS campaign, especially as more academic groups — such as the American Studies Association — have voted to support the campaign on university campuses.
“What happened was very unfortunate … but it indicates the effectiveness of BDS,” Askalan explained. “[Anti-Palestinian groups] are really fighting it so hard. [BDS] is affecting Israel. It is affecting the companies that are working in settlements. They are feeling the effects of BDS, otherwise they wouldn’t bother [to disrupt BDS events].”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine.