WINNIPEG — Last year, first-year University of Manitoba law student Josh Morry successfully petitioned the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) to strip funding and official club status from Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), the group that organized Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at the school, on the grounds that it was making Jewish students on campus feel uncomfortable.
That seemed to be the end of IAW at U of M. It turned out, however, that it was merely a setback for anti-Israel forces on campus.
Undeterred, an off-campus group, Winnipeg Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (WCAIA), went over the head of UMSU this year and appealed directly to U of M president David Barnard for permission to rent space at the university for the tenth annual IAW.
To the consternation of Morry and others on campus, Barnard gave his approval.
Morry and some 40 other students sent a letter to Barnard in mid-March protesting the decision. “As Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Jewish Students Association at the U of M and [University of Winnipeg], we are very concerned and disappointed with the university’s decision,” they wrote.
“It is simply not safe to be labelled a racist and apartheid supporter on campus, as students at Concordia [University] and York University have found out the hard way. Following UMSU’s decision to ban SAIA and IAW, members of the anti-Israel community proceeded to post Holocaust jokes on the UMSU Facebook page. Some of these people are members of CAIA,” the letter added.
They noted that U of M’s “Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy” states that “the university does not condone any behaviour that is ‘likely’ to undermine the dignity or self-esteem of students” and the university “has an obligation to uphold its policies,” they said.
“We are students paying to attend university, and we have the right to a safe learning environment free from groups that undermine our dignity and self-esteem. It is shocking to us that the University of Manitoba is prepared to disregard its own policies and jump through hoops to allow an off-campus advocacy group to poison the atmosphere of the university at the expense of its students. We can’t help but ask ourselves why our university is colluding with those who hurt us.”
The letter concluded: “Our goal is simply to learn in a safe environment, please respect us by enforcing your policies.”
Morry said the UMSU executive also met with Barnard about the issue. “Dr. Barnard assured them that the decision does not put students at risk nor undermine UMSU’s decision,” he said.
“Dr. Barnard has decided that the rights of an off-campus group overshadows the rights of paying students.”
Leah Janzen, the university’s associate vice-president of outreach and engagement, said U of M routinely licenses space to off-campus individuals and organizations, as long they respect the law and university policies.
In his written response to the students’ letter, Barnard said much the same thing. He also noted that “the Human Rights Code obligates [the university] not to discriminate against groups based upon their political beliefs. We simply attempt to ensure that those beliefs are expressed in a respectful way that furthers our mission to facilitate informed debate.”
Morry said that while the WCAIA was initially given space on the fifth floor of the UMSU building, the group was eventually allowed to have a booth on the main floor, where it had much greater visibility.
The group held its anti-Israel programs during the week of March 17 to 21 and featured an attack on SodaStream and an appearance by John Greyson, an anti-Israel filmmaker from Toronto who was arrested last year at the Egypt-Gaza border while trying to enter Gaza and was imprisoned in Egypt for a period of time.
Morry said the IAW programs seemed to have been poorly attended, but he expressed concern that ill-informed students may have been swayed by the propaganda.