After Hasbara Fellowships was excluded in March from participating in a social justice-themed campus event because of the group’s “ties to Israel,” Robert Walker, the Canadian director of the organization, decided he wasn’t going to take the discrimination lying down.
On July 29, Hasbara Fellowships filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT) against the Student Association at Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and the UOIT Faculty Association for its “blatant and remorseless discrimination… targeted at Jewish and Israeli people.”
Last February, Walker acted on an invitation by the Oshawa-based UOIT’s student association to apply for a table at a Social Justice Week event to promote the Hasbara Fellowships’ “Israel Peace Week” program.
Walker said he received a rejection email from Denise Martins, executive assistant of UOIT’s faculty association, that said since the student association passed a motion endorsing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in January, and because Hasbara Fellowships “seems closely tied to the State of Israel… it would be against the motion to provide any type of resources to your organization.”
UOIT’s student association released a statement in defence of its decision to exclude Hasbara Fellowships from the event, which included anti-capitalist and Marxist-Leninist programing, as well as anti-Israel programming.
“The stated objectives of Hasbara Fellowships are in conflict with the objectives of Social Justice Week… Any organization whose mandate is to promote policies that contributes [sic] to the colonization of indigenous peoples, Palestinian or otherwise, does not align with the principles of social justice,” the statement said.
In March, the then-president of the student association, Jesse Cullen, was quoted by the online newspaper Oshawa This Week comparing Hasbara Fellowships to the Ku Klux Klan.
“We would not have the KKK out at the same event as Black Lives Matter,” he said.
Walker said that he hopes the OHRT will rule in Hasbara’s favour and “see this case for what it is: egregious, unlawful discrimination. I’ve never seen, in Canada, a similar example to this where students and faculty will be so bold, so unafraid as to state their discriminatory policies.”
Hasbara Fellowships is seeking $50,000 in compensation, a mandatory review of the associations’ policies and training for all members to identify and eliminate anti-Semitism from those policies, a written apology to Hasbara Fellowships for the discrimination that would be disseminated to campus media and be prominently displayed on the associations’ websites for a year, an invitation to Hasbara Fellowships to make a public presentation on campus, and a repeal of discriminatory policies against Israeli and Jewish people.
Representatives of the student association declined to comment, and a request to the faculty association for comment went unanswered.
Distancing the university from this incident, UOIT spokesperson Melissa Levy said, “the SA [Student Association] is a separate, independent and autonomous organization from the university, with its own governance… As the SA is an independent body, UOIT does not direct the programming or events that the association organizes for the student community.”
The associations are independent of the university, though the student association is funded in part by student levies collected by the school.
“We met with administration, senior officials at the university. We sent them a formal letter detailing our complaint and what we asked for them to do,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, they haven’t taken concrete action. We’re reviewing all our options, with respect to the administration, but for now, [we’re targeting] the bodies that actually discriminated against us.”
Walker added that this incident was “unconscionable” and felt the student group couldn’t allow this kind of discrimination to go unanswered.
“This is not a political discussion or debate. This is not a debate over Israel’s policies or the opinions of Hasbara Fellowships students or their opinions or policies. This is a group being banned because we are connected with Israel.”