Anti-Semitism at Ryerson

The pro-Israel community has for years been contending that anti-Zionism is just a modern strand of anti-Semitism. That the State of Israel has become a proxy for Jews and Judaism, providing cover for those who choose to demonize Jews through the more palatable trend of demonizing Israel. We are constantly told that “even Jews join the fight against Israel,” so anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism couldn’t possibly be the same (leaving the history of self-hating Jews aside). However it struck no one at Canary Mission as odd when Ryerson University in Canada showed everyone that classic anti-Semitism is alive and well, within the “anti-Zionist” groups on their campus.

Some background. On November 29, the Ryerson Student Union (RSU) was having their annual membership meeting. On the docket was a resolution to “..celebrate the official Canadian Holocaust Education Week (or dedicate a full five work days annually and consecutively) which numerous events/education programs are offered in collaboration with the remembrance and history of the Holocaust.” In short, it was a resolution to introduce the Canadian Holocaust Education Week programming into the university. Seems innocuous, right? Who could possibly take issue with informing and educating university students about the horrors of the Holocaust? Who could take issue with exposing the younger generation one of the most tragic events in human history, so that they could become active participants in ensuring “Never Again?”

According to the Hillel Ryerson community, students from the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA) first called for an amendment to the motion to include all forms of genocide, essentially erasing anything unique to the Jewish people or the Nazi Holocaust.

It is a fair point to make that Jews deserve a space in which to validate their own unique historical pain without having that experience drowned out by the experiences of others. However, not everyone was prepared to acknowledge or respect the right to such a space for Jews at Ryerson on November 29.

Jewish Ryerson student Aedan O’Connor reported, “When presenting the motion we were snickered at and told to sit down and not present by other students. When it approached the time to vote on this motion a large group of students started messaging each other and coordinated a walk out to rid the assembly of quorum.”

But then they walked out, causing the meeting to lose quorum and the vote to die, Hillel Ryerson’s Aedan O’Connor reported.

“Instead of going through with trying to amend it, they … decided to walk out,” she said.

Amanda Hohmann, national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, condemned the act as a clear case of anti-Semitism.

“When they realized the original motion would likely pass as it was presented, (they)… got up and walked out as a way of removing quorum so that the motion couldn’t pass,” she said.

“There is no other way to characterize this, but (as) anti-Jewish sentiment,” she added, urging the government to intervene.

“It’s a systemic issue… (on) many university campuses across Canada… Universities are funded by taxpayer dollars and there needs to be some accountability at the government level.”

Let’s be clear. This resolution had absolutely nothing to do with Israel. There was no pro-Israel messaging involved, no request to purchase Israeli-made items, nothing to link this resolution to the ongoing campus debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was solely a resolution to bring Holocaust awareness and education to the general Ryerson student population.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, we researched both the MSA and SJP Facebook pages to see their reactions to the uproar. The Ryerson MSA acknowledged that they have been accused by many to organizing a walkout and that “Allegations that we organized or directed the loss of quorum are completely false and hurtful.”

They went on to insist that “We strongly believe in free speech, the right for all paying members of the RSU to put forth motions, and the importance of motions being debated and put to a democratic vote.”

This statement flies in the face of their behavior at the meeting. They actively aborted the possibility of both debating and voting on the motion by leaving and ruining the quorum. While trying to absolve themselves, they demonstrated that while they might theoretically honor debate and democracy, neither applies when the resolution is something they don’t agree with. SJP hasn’t offered a statement, but they did promote the RSU meeting on their Facebook page, encouraging their members to attend and offering them free dinner. On pure speculation, one might wonder why they were so keen to see their membership show up to this meeting, while a cursory glance at their previously promoted events shows no other RSU meetings. It does make one wonder why they wanted so many members to attend this specific meeting if the walk-out wasn’t previously planned.

Additionally, there is the recent allegation that the president of the RSU Student Union, Obaid Ullah, was possibly involved in the walkout, with a purported text to those who left with the words “Leave now.” It will certainly be interesting to see if and how Ullah responds to these allegations. If proven true, it would surely add a new layer to the accusations of anti-Semitism extending to those who’ve been elected to represent their fellow students. Last year, for example, questions arose from members of Ryerson’s Muslim Student’s Association, questioning whether Ullah’s association with the RSU’s IMPACT slate would impede on his previous activism for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the university.

Hasbara Fellowships, a leading pro-Israel advocacy organization, wrote a letter voicing their concern to the president of the RSU.

“Today anti-Israel activists let their guard down,” according to Robert Walker, National Director for Hasbara Fellowships Canada. “Today we saw concrete proof that for many students, there really is a core anti-Semitic hatred of Jewish students.”

Ryerson has a history of anti-Israel hostility, becoming one of the first North American campuses to successfully pass a BDS resolution in April 2014, targeting the State of Israel for boycott. The resolution prohibits the university from having ties with companies that do business in Israel, including Home Depot, Costco and Sears, and removed Sabra hummus from the campus cafeteria. Additionally, the university came under fire for allowing a violent anti-Israel rally to take place on its campus, and sponsoring a pro-BDS event with taxpayer money, while repeatedly taking down videos posted to Facebook by pro-Israel students.

Then-president of RSU Rajean Hoilett explained, “I think it’s very important for people to know the difference between freedom of speech and hate speech.”

Based on university precedent, however, it would seem that those definitions are at the mercy of the biases of anti-Israel Ryerson students.

“What starts with BDS does not end with BDS,” warned Hohmann. “More often than not, BDS is simply a gateway drug to more blatant forms of anti-Semitism.”

On December 19, 2016, the Ryerson Student Union held a meeting to table the motion that was previously scuttled, and the motion passed unanimously. It appears that the outcome of the backlash was overwhelming support for the motion, which relieved those involved in the bill’s passage. “This has been the second year in many that Jewish students can feel safer and included on campus. I am excited that my student union acknowledges the importance of education about the Holocaust and I could not be more proud” said Rebecca Katzman, president of Students Supporting Israel at Ryerson.

All’s well that ends well, but the reverberations of this situation will certainly be felt in the future. From this incident, it’s quite clear that the fine line between campus anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is not only blurred but sometimes becomes indistinguishable altogether.

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