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Gertler: Committed to combatting anti-Semitism on campus

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Crisp fall days, ivy-covered courtyards, a shift in energy as the days grow shorter. Beginning university for the first time – or returning after a long summer break – is an experience that will stay with you throughout your life. It is a time of endless horizons and optimism about what the future may hold.

It is also a time of transition, as students join larger communities and become exposed to a multiplicity of opinions and people.

And yet, campuses are not immune from larger global trends, including some that may be challenging. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is flourishing around the world, despite the fact that the collective memory of the attempted extermination of the Jews more than 75 years ago has not faded. Several European countries have seen a rise in anti-Semitic crimes, including hate speech and violence against Jews. This troubling global trend is fed by the proliferation of online hatred, as well as other social and political developments.

In the United States, there were 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, including the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last October, which killed 11 worshippers, among them a member of the University of Toronto alumni community, Joyce Fienberg (née Libman). And, according to Statistics Canada, Jews are the most targeted group for police-reported hate crimes in Canada.

At the University of Toronto, we are fully aware of, and vigilant about, the dangers and impact of anti-Semitism. The university has condemned racism and anti-Semitism in all its forms, consistently and repeatedly, for many years. We do so again today, and reiterate our view that anti-Semitism is a pernicious source of discrimination and harassment and a threat to all free societies. It offends all the values that we cherish.

We want to reassure all our students that we will do everything possible to ensure they feel welcome on our campuses. Harassment or discrimination of individuals or groups based on race, religion, ancestry, place of origin, ethnicity, citizenship or any other social identity, as stated in the university’s Statement on Human Rights, is intolerable.

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Our institution reaffirms its commitment to being a safe and welcoming place for the widest breadth of communities – and their perspectives, ideas and debates. The University of Toronto is fortunate to be one of the most diverse institutions for higher education in the world, reflecting Toronto’s rich multicultural identity. The university is also deeply committed to the values of diversity, inclusion and respect. Our responsibility to students is to encourage and support the civil debate of issues in a respectful environment.

That doesn’t mean students will never hear views with which they may disagree. They will, and that is an important part of higher education. But freedom of speech never extends to the promotion of hatred against an identifiable group.

We work with student groups and individuals to ensure they are informed of the university’s policies and practices around any form of faith-based discrimination. In fact, students, staff and faculty on our campuses have more resources to address and combat discrimination than they would in many other work environments, or in the wider world.

We are proud of the diversity and equity policies developed through our vice-president, human resources and equity, and the work of our anti-racism and cultural diversity office. The university has created a comprehensive process for any member of the university community who feels they have experienced faith-based discrimination or harassment, and we have devoted considerable resources to support this process.

The anti-racism office, which promotes diversity and addresses issues of discrimination and harassment, is in the midst of expanding institutional initiatives on anti-racism, under the guidance of a talented new director. This fall, the office will launch a series of lectures addressing challenging issues, including anti-Semitism in higher education. The office also receives and helps to resolve, in collaboration with other offices, faith-based complaints, which range from the need to accommodate religious observances to the defacement of posters and the use of inappropriate language.

At the same time, we are proud of our long history of Jewish scholarship at the university, and the robust demand for our Jewish studies program. The Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies was created in 2008 to build on this legacy. Today, the centre offers more than 90 undergraduate and graduate courses in archeology, languages, philosophy and literature. The program focuses on the Jewish experience as it has moved in time and place from the ancient Land of Israel to the countries of the Jewish Diaspora, to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

A new building planned for 90 Queen’s Park will house an arm of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, as well as the Institute of Islamic Studies – a fitting metaphor for the peaceful co-existence of many faith traditions in Canada, and at the university.

U of T’s extraordinary diversity – ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, socio-economic and intellectual – is one of our great strengths. The interaction and competition among so many different ideas stretch and test our beliefs and spark new insights, leading to discovery, understanding and advances in the human condition. We are proud of this tradition, and we wish students well as they re-connect on our campuses and enjoy the beauty of fall and of new beginnings.

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