TORONTO — York University has been a hotbed of anti-Israel activity for years, but “the siege” against Jewish students on campus of late is more intense than ever before, says Aaron Rosenberg, co-president of Hasbara at York.
While anti-Israel protested called on York President Mamdouh Shoukri to cut academic ties with Israel, pro-Israel students tried to "drown out the hate with peace."
Within the past two weeks, a Jewish student at York received a death threat against him and his family, while another Jewish student was allegedly assaulted by a member of an anti-Israel campus group. In two other incidents, a mob chanting anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slurs trapped Jewish students inside the campus Hillel lounge, and an anti-Israel rally was held in Vari Hall rotunda.
The number of anti-Israel and pro-Israel demonstrators was virtually even.
Most recently, on Feb. 12, the rally against Israel, organized by Students Against Israel Apartheid (SAIA), attracted some 150 to 200 students who urged York President Mamdouh Shoukri to “fully endorse a public forum on an academic boycott of Israel” and to sever all ties with Israel.
The protesters, who were told to dress all in black in solidarity with Gazans, chanted slogans such as “Free, free Palestine” and “Who’s campus? Our campus.”
Rosenberg said Jewish students are tired of being bullied by anti-Israel groups that intimidate people who don’t support them, and they responded by staging a counter-protest that attracted nearly 200 students.
York student Annie Gamliel said the latter group’s message was one of peace.
“The rally was huge. It was very well maintained. There was a lot of York security and the Israel side made sure they had one, very clear message,” she said.
“We were singing, we were chanting, ‘Drown out the hate with peace.’ They were saying, ‘Who’s campus? Our campus.’ We were saying, ‘Who’s campus? Everyone’s campus.’”
Rosenberg was happy about how well Jewish campus groups worked together.
“The Jewish community really came together for the first time ever on campus and really stood up against this stuff,” he said. “We sang, we danced, we sang Hatikvah, O Canada, and that was it.”
But confrontations between pro-Israel and anti-Israel students at York have not gone so smoothly of late.
A day earlier, on Feb. 11, students involved in the Drop YFS campaign – a student-run initiative to impeach executive members of the York Federation of Students due to their inactivity during the recent CUPE strike, which shut down the university for three months – were preparing to announce that they had gathered the 5,000 signatures necessary to oust the YFS executive.
Rosenberg, one of the petition’s organizers, said Drop YFS decided to hold a press conference in a room in York’s student centre to announce the collection of the signatures and to hand the petition to the university’s chief returning officer, who oversees the recall process.
“We got there, and Students Against Israel Apartheid were there with their crew, the Tamil Tigers were there with their whole crew and Krisna Saravanamuttu, the YFS’ vice-president of equity, was there as well,” Rosenberg said.
He said that within 90 seconds, the mob of people that had gathered outside the room – who weren’t allowed in because of capacity restrictions – began making accusations of racism.
“It was obviously not racist because there was a diverse section of the student body in the room.”
He said they started to bang on the walls, scream and yell. “We were nervous that it would become violent and there would be no way out of the room… so we cancelled the meeting, left and we went straight to the Hillel.”
He said what happened next was something that he and Hillel staff had never seen before.
“It was basically a siege. They were screaming and yelling and banging on the walls of the Hillel, screaming, ‘Let us in.’ It was a very scary situation,” Rosenberg said.
“We called security, but they couldn’t do anything for us. We called the police and the police weren’t willing to do anything for us but escort us out of the building.”
Among the slurs shouted by the mob were “Die Jew,” “Get the hell off campus,” “Go back to Israel,” and “F—ing Jew,” Hillel said in a statement.
Michael Payton, a York student who witnessed the incident, posted a note on Facebook saying that he saw the YFS’ Saravanamuttu leading the mob.
“I saw him after the rally shaking people’s hands and thanking them for coming,” Payton wrote.
York students draped in Israeli flags gathered at Vari Hall on Feb. 12 to counter an anti-Israel rally.
Rosenberg said that the Drop YFS campaign was not a Jewish affair, but the YFS made it so by blaming Jewish and Zionist groups on campus for the initiative.
He said YFS supporters distributed flyers against the group, which he described as “a hit list” of six Drop YFS organizers.
He said that he, along with Sammy Katz, Hasbara’s campus co-ordinator; Daniel Ferman, Hillel at York’s president, and Ilan Mann, who is involved with AEPi, the Jewish fraternity, were singled out as being a part of a “Zionist conspiracy” to bring down the YFS.
“It’s very scary to be identified like that at York,” Rosenberg said.
He said that earlier that day, Shoukri and members of York’s administration met with representatives of Jewish and Muslim student groups and SAIA to talk about the rally.
“[York’s administration] is useless. Let’s be honest here,” Rosenberg said.
University spokesperson Alex Bilyk said that York is “dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge and the freedom of expression,” but “we have a responsibility to provide a safe and secure campus for all of our students, faculty and staff.”
However, he did not elaborate on how the administration would work to keep students safe.
The week before, York student Jessica Abourmad was involved in a “scuffle” with a member of SAIA.
“They had up a mock ‘apartheid wall,’ which they did not have a permit for [from the university], and they were handing out flyers calling for the boycott of Israeli academics,” Abourmad said.
“I was standing there and some guy was calling me a Zionist, fascist pig and I wasn’t even talking to him.”
Offended by the flyers, she decided to take them from the table SAIA had set up and dispose of them.
Abourmad said that Hammam Farrah, a member of SAIA who is not a York student, pursued her.
“He whips around me, grabs the flyers – I don’t even know what happened, but I fell back. I was in shock.”
Her friends called 911, but it took police 20 minutes to arrive at the scene. In the meantime, she said a group of Farrah’s supporters came up with a story and planned to discredit Abourmad’s account of events.
The police told her they couldn’t press charges, because there were too many witnesses on the other side who said it didn’t happen.
Even more disturbing was an incident involving a Jewish student who received a phone call in the middle of the night on Feb. 4. Abourmad, who knows the victim, said the caller threatened the student and his family with rape and murder, in both English and Hebrew.
York Regional Police Detective Brett Kemp, who is investigating the incident as a hate crime, didn’t want to repeat the threat but confirmed that the comments were hateful and there was a threat to harm both the student and his family.
“There is an obvious hate motivation behind the comments that were made, and that is why it is being investigated as a hate crime.”
The hate crime unit is following up on leads, and “it is likely that they will be able to identify who has done it,” Kemp said.
B’nai Brith Canada said it has requested an “urgent” meeting with York officials to discuss security for Jewish students.
“We have already been in communication with police and demanded that the safety and security of Jewish students at York University and other campuses be dealt with as a matter of top priority,” executive vice-president Frank Diamant said in a statement.
“The climate on York’s campus of aggressive intimidation, violent rhetoric and physical harassment is unacceptable,” Hillel’s Ferman said. “The hostile environment demonstrates contempt for all students – not only to Jewish students.”
In a separate incident at Ryerson University last week, Ryerson’s CUPE union president Donald Elder sent an e-mail to his members – mainly part-time instructors and teaching assistants – that an anti-Israel resolution will be presented and voted on at the Ontario University Workers Co-ordinating Committee (OUWCC) meeting on Feb. 20.
The resolution seeks to “defend the right of Palestinians students [to] have access to education and educational institutions in the Palestinian territory.”
It also urges members to discuss a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, to “investigate both research and investment links between Ontario universities and the state of Israel’s military,” and “request funding and support from CUPE Ontario to conduct an education campaign on the academic boycott.”