Canadian university accused of ‘banning’ Jewish students
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Canadian university accused of ‘banning’ Jewish students

Suit filed in Ontario seeks legal review, damages for alleged discrimination, starting when the student government endorsed BDS in January

One of the most active chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, organizing anti-Israel campaigns and events throughout the year (SJP at UOIT/DC Facebook page)
One of the most active chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, organizing anti-Israel campaigns and events throughout the year (SJP at UOIT/DC Facebook page)

For the first time, a Jewish or pro-Israel organization is taking legal action against the faculty and student associations of a Canadian university.

On August 3, Hasbara Fellowships Canada filed a formal complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, where it accused the student and faculty associations of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and Durham College of discriminating against Jewish students and Israel, following the banning of Hasbara Fellowships Canada from participating in a student association-sponsored “Social Justice Week” five months ago.

For activists affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the university-funded Social Justice Week meant an opportunity to advance Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activities against the Jewish state. When it came to the request of pro-Israel students to participate, however, Hasbara Fellowships Canada was banned.

In an email sent by UOIT’s faculty association to Robert Walker, national director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, the reason for banning a Jewish student group at the publicly funded university was explained:

“The Student Association passed a motion endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement [in January],” read the faculty association’s email to Walker. “Your organization seems closely tied to the state of Israel and as such, it would be against the motion to provide any type of resources to your organization,” said the email.

According to Walker, this ban was “the most open incident of discrimination targeting Jewish students in Canada from a student government I have ever seen,” as he told The Times of Israel.

Robert Walker, national director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada (courtesy)
Robert Walker, national director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada (courtesy)

“These associations are an embarrassment to the university, as is the fact that several dozen Jewish students who we are working with are uniformly reporting on being intimidated and harassed,” said Walker. “The Jewish students need to know we have their backs, and that we take it extremely seriously,” he said.

Tension erupted in January when the student association passed a BDS motion against Israel, allowing both the student and faculty associations to ban engagement with Israel-affiliated students and organizations in every aspect of campus life, as per the movement’s “non-normalization” policy.

Since the BDS motion, dozens of Jewish students have “come out of the woodwork” and been added to Hasbara Fellowships’ roll call, said Walker. Most of these students were “unaffiliated” and were not involved in Israel advocacy beforehand, but recognized the necessity of taking action, he added.

At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Students for Justice in Palestine put on a 'Visualizing Palestine' exhibition against Israel, in which posters focused largely on the 'ethnic cleansing' of Palestinians, March 2016 (SJP at UIOT/DC Facebook page)
At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Students for Justice in Palestine put on a ‘Visualizing Palestine’ exhibition against Israel, in which posters focused largely on the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestinians, March 2016 (SJP at UOIT/DC Facebook page)

With no sign the student assembly will rescind its ban on Israel this fall, Walker and pro-Israel students fight one battle at a time in the war for Israel’s reputation on the pristine campus, not far from Lake Ontario and Toronto’s Jewish community of 200,000.

“We are demanding that both associations publicly apologize to Hasbara Fellowships Canada and repeal any discriminatory policies in place,” said Walker, whose organization was founded in 2001 by Aish HaTorah, and has a presence on dozens of North American campuses. Aish HaTorah has been compared to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) on the UOIT campus in recent months, including by the student association’s former president.

‘They will do anything to shut me up’

On the UOIT campus, it is fair to call Shanel Jacobs the loudest voice for Israel. Currently in Israel on Hasbara Fellowships’ training program, Jacobs was born in the Jewish state and grew up in Toronto. She would have been the student sitting behind Hasbara Fellowships’ “Israel Peace Week” table during Social Justice Week in March, handing out materials on coexistence and mutual dialogue.

Having spent four years on campus, Jacobs was “horrified” by the faculty association’s response to her group’s request for a table, and by the student association’s passage of BDS in January.

Shanel Jacobs, a student at UOIT, during a Hasbara Fellowships Canada training in Jerusalem, Israel, August 2016 (courtesy)
Shanel Jacobs, a student at UOIT, during a Hasbara Fellowships Canada training in Jerusalem, Israel, August 2016 (courtesy)

“Student government has been so hostile toward Israel that pro-Israel students have not even been allowed to speak at meetings,” said Jacobs, who has been harassed on campus for being an Israel activist, she said.

“It’s like I am living in Israel on my own campus,” she said. “I am surrounded by people who do not like me and will do anything to shut me up,” said Jacobs, whose father is from India’s B’nai Israel Jewish community.

Having considered starting her own pro-Israel club, Jacobs said such a group would immediately be “shut down” by BDS-aligned student leaders. To work around the likely ban, Jacobs and several other students advocated using the perspective of human rights for all people in the Middle East. But now, as a Hasbara Fellowships-trained activist, Jacobs said she is less shy about discussing — for instance — Palestinian media incitement, the Hamas charter, or what happened after Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

“We are learning not to repeat the argument that Students for Justice in Palestine is making,” said Jacobs. “This is about using our own dialogue and telling our own story despite intense efforts to stifle pro-Israel voices,” she said.

At UOIT outside Toronto, Students for Justice in Palestine activists staff their information table, 2016 (UOIT's SJP chapter Facebook page)
At UOIT outside Toronto, Students for Justice in Palestine activists staff their information table, 2016 (SJP at UOIT/DC Facebook page)

Hasbara Fellowships’ suit filed with Ontario’s both powerful and symbolic Human Rights Tribunal is requesting $50,000 in reparations from the student and faculty associations — “reasonable damages for breach of the Code and blatant and unabashed discrimination that was instigated and maintained by the respondents that was directed against me,” wrote Walker in the filing, calling the faculty association’s treatment of Jewish and pro-Israel students “blatant discrimination.”

Additionally, Walker’s filing called for a “mandatory review” of the faculty and student associations’ policies and resolutions to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Code, as well as a mandatory annual training for the groups’ executives and staff “on identifying and eliminating anti-Semitism within their policies and practices.”

The Canadian Jewish community has been weighing in on the situation in recent days, including pro-Israel columnist Diane Weber Bederman, who argued a double-standard applies to discrimination against Jews and Israel on campus. She called Hasbara Fellowships’ filing with the Human Rights Tribunal a necessary step to halt the momentum of BDS against Israel on Canadian campuses.

“In Canada, our Liberal Government has told us over and over that discrimination will not be tolerated in our diverse and tolerant, inclusive and accommodating country,” wrote Bederman. “We must win this action so that the Jewish students around the world will know that hate toward Jews for being Jewish and hate toward Israelis for beings Israeli will not be countenanced,” she wrote.

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