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Union slammed for backing anti-Israel event at U of T

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Israeli Apartheid Week at Carleton University in 2013.

Following an email from CUPE local 3902 to its membership promoting the upcoming Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at the University of Toronto, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) issued a statement condemning the union for its involvement in “promoting hate propaganda.”

FSWC president and CEO Avi Benlolo told The CJN that CUPE local 3902, which represents U of T’s seasonal lecturers and teaching assistants, sent an email that encouraged its members to participate in IAW, the annual anti-Israel event that launched in Toronto in 2004 and is being held this year at U of T from March 9 to 17.

“It’s not to say that it hasn’t happened before, but it is to say that it is significant that the steam hasn’t run out of the engine. These people are still very much motivated to propagate this anti-Israel, anti-Jewish hatred,” Benlolo said.

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“Our position has always been that unions should work toward the betterment of the workers and employees they represent and that taking an anti-Israel position is not within their mandate. Most people would agree with that.”

The email, which lists Students Against Israeli Apartheid; the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid; the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union BDS Committee; Faculty for Palestine and the CUPE Local 3902 BDS Committee as organizers of IAW at U of T, said this year’s event “will reflect on 100 years of resistance to settler colonialism across historic Palestine… [and] link the history of Palestinian resistance to the struggles of the Indigenous peoples on whose territories we live, work, and study, and who are resisting settler colonial violence and dispossession.”

Benlolo said IAW marginalizes Jewish students and creates a hostile atmosphere that is “antithetical to every lofty principle to which our institutions of higher learning should aspire – and yet it has been allowed to continue its bully tactics year after year, unimpeded.”

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To that end, Benlolo wrote a letter to U of T president Meric Gertler urging him to follow the lead of some British university presidents who’ve banned IAW from their campuses. “For many Jewish students at the University of Toronto, the atmosphere of hate and hostility, particularly during Israeli Apartheid Week, has become near intolerable. We have heard from several young men and women who simply choose not to go to classes at all during IAW to avoid the veiled threats and subtle intimidation to which they are subject,” Benlolo wrote.

He said despite recent reports of racist graffiti on campuses and Jewish institutions, “the Jewish community is not afraid, and FSWC will continue to lead the fight against hatred and a resurgence of anti-Semitic discrimination.”

He said FSWC will provide resources to students and faculty who want to help counter anti-Israel activities on campus.

U of T spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans said although CUPE is an independent organization and does not reflect U of T’s views, the university has a commitment to free expression and open dialogue. “We know that controversial topics arise, and while the views can be disconcerting and offensive to people, but we always expect that the discussion and debate take place in a civil and respectful environment,” she said.

She said IAW organizers are expected to comply with university policies, as well as all laws against discrimination.

“We’ll always continue to confront anti-Semitism and racism and faith-based discrimination of any kind,” she said.

“It’s great to see the pledge by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center to offer resources to students and faculty to help counter what they are seeing. We welcome that commitment and their offer to do this.”

CUPE 3902 chair Ryan Culpepper said the local “proudly supports the international call to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israeli institutions that perpetuate and/or profit from the occupation of Palestine… We also strongly condemn any expressions of anti-Semitism, and we do not believe that advocating for the rights of Palestinians in any way contravenes a commitment to the rights of Jewish people at U of T and around the world.