I joined the Ryerson University School of Social Work in Toronto in 2013 because I thought it fostered an environment in which minorities feel safe to express their identity without being unfairly judged. I am deeply passionate about advocating for my Jewish community and I thought I was going to an institution that shared my values. I never imagined that the faculty at this very school would engage in the worst form of bigotry I have experienced during my time as a student at Ryerson.
I often hear about campus anti-Semitism and how students are made to feel vulnerable, but for the most part, that wasn’t the case for me. I have been active in Jewish organizations on campus for some time, serving as arts and culture chair, vice-president and president of the group, Students Supporting Israel at Ryerson. Through my work with that organization, I often spoke out against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus. And yet, I have been forced to keep a secret since 2015, because I was afraid of how it would impact my academic career. Now that I am graduating, I can no longer keep silent.
In 2015, I asked Heather Bain, the third year field education coordinator from the School of Social Work, to place me at UJA Federation, or the Prosserman JCC for my third year social work placement. These organizations do a lot of great work for both Jews and non-Jews in our community and they raise awareness about important social issues in our city. I thought they would be a natural fit.
Nothing could have prepared me for Bain’s response.
After receiving my request, she responded in an email, saying, “I did not follow up with Prosserman JCC or UJA because after looking into them, some of their values seem to be in opposition to the values of the school.” She claimed both agencies have a “strong anti-Palestinian lean,” and later suggested that I could only work with them if I came in with an agenda to “bring a critical awareness to the setting.” It seemed that she implied that I could only work at these agencies if I came in with an anti-Israel agenda.
In four years of working to combat bigotry on my campus, I never saw another individual abuse her position of power the way Bain did. Fortunately for me, this email exchange happened as I was starting my StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship. I reached out to my campus coordinator, Zina Rakhamilova, who worked with her team to give me the advice and confidence I needed to respond. They also connected me with a pro-bono attorney.
I asked Bain to explain how she arrived at such an uninformed and unfair decision. She responded that she “chose not to follow up with the UJA,” not because of anything on its website, but because of what “her colleagues from Jews Against Israeli Apartheid” told her. She concluded by suggesting that she might change her decision if she heard that “both agencies (were) supporters of Palestinian solidarity movements.”
In utter disbelief, I asked her what other agencies have been rejected because they were in “opposition to the values of the school,” or because they would not take a political stance in favour of one side in a foreign conflict. I also asked who she consulted before making her decision and how it was possible for her not to do her own research before making such wild accusations.
‘Nothing could have prepared me for Bain’s response’
She did not respond to my questions, so I informed her that I had booked an appointment with Sheldon Levy, the president of Ryerson University at the time, to discuss this matter further. In a panic, both Bain and the social work placement manager contacted me to issue an apology, but the damage was already done. Moreover, Levy never ended up meeting with me and the administrators he sent in his place never followed up after the incident.
After experiencing this form of anti-Semitism, I was distraught. I felt like I was trapped – attending a school that was targeting me and my community, instead of protecting the rights of all minorities.
Now that I no longer need to worry about academic reprisals, I am speaking out in the hopes that I can prevent something similar from happening to any other student. Ryerson University must prove that it will stand up against bigotry and hatred, and ensure that future incidents like this do not pass without consequences. I would also like Bain to issue a public apology, because I do not believe the private one she sent me was sincere.
I also want Jewish students and alumni across North America who have faced similar bigotry from those in positions of power to know that they are not alone. The more we tell our stories and hold our faculty and staff accountable – even if it is years after the fact – the better campus life will be for future generations.
Rebecca Katzman is graduating with a degree in social work from Ryerson University in Toronto and a StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellow.