A standoff between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters in Toronto on Nov. 20 turned violent at times as the two groups clashed in the hallways of York University’s Vari Hall.
The pro-Palestinian demonstration was organized by Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), in response to an event put on by Herut Canada, which brought IDF reservists to campus to answer questions about Israel, the IDF, BDS and more.
The unrest started at 6:30 p.m., as SAIA protesters on the ground floor of the building began chanting slogans like “Free, Free Palestine” and “Viva, Viva Intifada,” while holding signs and Palestinian flags. They then proceeded upstairs to the second floor. At the second floor landing, they met a group of pro-Israel counter-protesters, including members of the Jewish Defence League, who chanted “Am Yisra’el Chai” and held up Israeli flags and signs of their own.
After a few minutes, tensions started to simmer down, as the SAIA protesters went back downstairs. But they emerged again in the hallway outside of the hall where the event was set to take place. Security guards and police rushed into position, but not before pro-Israel demonstrators could get there. The two groups stood face-to-face, shouting at each other.
One SAIA protester, a Syrian refugee who lost 50 members of his extended family and came to Canada three years ago, said he was protesting the event in a show of solidarity. As a refugee himself, he said he understands the pain of the Palestinian people, and that a university campus is not the place to host members of a foreign military.
“You go to an educational platform, you do not present any type or any form of aggression, any type of hostility, violence … this is where you teach ethics, morals, knowledge,” he said. “Go hold your gun in your country, go protect your country, don’t come here in a school.”
He also said that at one point, after he chanted “Free Palestine,” a man rushed at him, grabbed the front of his jacket, pushed him and punched him.
He was not the only one. A few small skirmishes broke out over the course of the evening, with a few people on either side shoving and throwing punches.
Lauren Isaacs – the Toronto director for Herut Canada, who organized the event – said the protests made her and many of the attendees feel unsafe.
“They were very disruptive. They were intimidating us. They were threatening violence. A lot of our supporters and our guests were terrified,” she said, adding that a number of the panelists and guests were escorted outside at the conclusion of evening because they felt unsafe.
Yet Isaacs said that even with all the disruptions, including three interruptions inside the room once the event started, she considers the night a success. For one thing, it was very well attended and the audience was engaged. Likewise, Isaacs said, “It was successful because we allowed Israelis to speak on campus. We had a purely Zionistic event, a pro-Israel event on campus that was not shut down by the protesters.”
She believes that even if the event had featured regular Israelis, rather than IDF reservists, it still would have been protested.
Even though Herut is a Zionist organization, not every campus Zionist organization supported the event. The local Hillel chapter came out against it, with Hillel Ontario CEO Marc Newburgh saying in a statement that his organization “believed the event did not align with our campus programming strategy and we were concerned about the risk of violence.” According to Isaacs, Hillel tried to get the event cancelled.
Even so, members of Hillel were in attendance to ensure the safety of Jewish students. Newburgh condemned the anti-Israel activists for creating an “intimidating and hostile climate,” as well as other non-student organizations for amplifying the tension and putting students in an unsafe situation. Hillel would not confirm which organizations Newburgh was referring to.
Anna Kissin, the director of Hillel York, said that what took place on Nov. 20 was “frightening and deeply concerning.… Divisive voices from the extreme right and the extreme left are not contributing positively to the campus environment and are contradictory to our vision for York.”
Judy Zelikovitz, the vice-president of university and local partner services at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said in a press release that there is no place on campus for “intimidation or the disruption of student programs,” and that the large police presence the event required was “alarming.”
Victor Kwong, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, said one person was injured and a few people were removed from the property for engaging in physical altercations, but that otherwise the event was peaceful and no arrests were made.
In a press release, Rhonda Lenton, the president of York, thanked the university’s security services and police for managing the situation and ensuring the event went on as planned.
“I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that acts of violence are not tolerated on our campuses and York University has zero tolerance for hate. There is simply no place for it in our community,” she said. “The fact that external groups were on campus last night for the sole purpose of fomenting conflict should be especially disturbing to everyone at York.”
Lenton also pledged to proactively create a respectful and productive climate for holding difficult discussions.
One student who heard about the protest through her volunteer work for Amnesty International at York was disheartened by the two groups of protesters, wishing instead that they had tried to approach their differences through civil dialogue.
“They’re just falling into the same rabbit hole,” she said. “To the passerby, he’s not going to see this as a stand for rights. He’s just going to see two groups of human beings fighting, arguing and not hearing what the other is saying.”
Hailey Merten, a Jewish social work student at York, said she had mixed feelings about the event. On the one hand, it was eye-opening for her. “I saw firsthand how many York students are against my home, Israel,” she told The CJN. But on the other, she felt embarrassed and a little bit ashamed by the way other Jewish people acted.
Overall, she felt the event was “kinda useless,” since it was for the most part Zionists preaching to an audience of Zionist Jews. She also called the evening “traumatic.”
“Watching my community scream, call them horrible names and physically attack the other side, that’s not what our Jewish values look like,” she said.