On November 20 in Toronto, Canada, York University’s Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) tried to shut down a school-approved event featuring a panel of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans from Reservists on Duty, a group that travels to college campuses to provide facts about antisemitism and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
SAIA attracted around 600 protesters representing students as well as entities outside the school. According to Reservists on Duty CEO Amit Deri, this was the first protest where the group encountered “a BDS and Antifa collaboration.” What resulted was antisemitic violence colored with calls for genocide as protestors attempted to intimidate, demonize, and disenfranchise Israelis, Zionists, and Jews.
The presence of Toronto Police and private security personnel did not keep protestors and attendees from intermingling. One video shows individuals shoving and trying to punch one another in a packed stairwell. A pro-Palestine protestor claims he was punched by a pro-Israel attendee. Reservists on Duty stated protestors “assaulted a few Jewish students.” One person was injured during the protest.
Several videos show protestors inside the event space disrupting the panel by shouting and waving images, which were likely similar to those SAIA distributed in advance of the event in which an IDF soldier was Photoshopped to appear to strangle a Palestinian child.
Outside the event space, large groups gathered, banging on doors and chanting over loudspeakers. According to the Jerusalem Post, several protestors told event organizers to “go back to the ovens.” Numerous videos show protestors chanting “Viva, Viva Intifada,” referencing deadly periods of Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
Per the Anti-Defamation League, during the Intifada of 1987 to 1990, “masses of civilians attacked Israeli troops with stones, axes, Molotov cocktails, hand grenades, and firearms.” The Second Intifada of 2000 was a “campaign of deadly terrorism targeting Israeli civilians on buses, restaurants and on city streets,” killing over 1,000 Israelis, and wounding thousands more.
In the days following the well-covered antisemitic protests, Canadian politicians Roman Baber, the York Centre Member of Provincial Parliament, Doug Ford, the Ontario premier, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned protestors’ violence and hate.
York University has begun reviewing its methods for handling free speech about the conflicts in the Middle East. Toronto Police are investigating whether hate crimes occurred. Public outcry, coupled with the measured responses of administrators and police, will be important in finding ways to stem the growth of dangerous antisemitism on college campuses without quashing free speech.
Vassar President Reacts to Campus Antisemitism
Anti-Israel sentiment has long been problematic on college campuses, where groups often cloak antisemitism in social justice language. Allegiance to such movements, as well as events involving Israel on the world stage, led to numerous problematic displays of antisemitism, terror support, and misleading anti-Zionism at the University of Toronto, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Butler University, and McGill University in recent weeks.
Other instances of on-campus antisemitism have received the attention of those who can make a difference.
On November 14, former IDF humanitarian officer Hen Mazzig spoke before students and faculty at New York’s Vassar College. A group of 25 to 30 members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) disrupted his presentation by chanting outside the event space. For around 15 minutes, the noise was so loud that Mazzig could not speak. Among SJP’s chants was “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which has historically been a call for the annihilation of the Jewish state of Israel.
Mazzig’s talk centered around his experience as a Mizrahi Jew, a descendant of the “850,000 Jewish refugees who were expelled from Arab and Muslim countries between 1941 and 1972.” As he explains in a guest column in The College Fix, he and other Mizrahi Jews are “breathing proof that Israel has saved…not only white lives, but also those of people of color.”
“In an attempt to advocate for the marginalized, these students shouted down the gay son of refugees,” Mazzig wrote. “In an effort to stand up for minority rights, they denigrated a Jew of color. In the pursuit of peace, they – perhaps unknowingly – made public calls for the death of my family.” SJP subsequently took to Facebook to call deadly intifadas “popular uprisings” and states it “does not believe Zionism should have a platform [at Vassar].”
Several days later, SJP member Ezra Mead wrote an op-ed in The Forward, claiming Mazzig “uses” his gay identity and intersectionality, and explaining the group protested because members “believed [Mazzig’s] talk would be little more than pro-Israel propaganda.” In closing, Mead indicated Mazzig should be disposessed of his right to free speech because there can be “no ‘free exchange of ideas’…about the forced dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”
SJP’s equivocations revealed the hatred and bigotry underlying their social justice message.
Department of Ed Investigating New York University
Administrators at another school, New York University (NYU), failed to protect Jewish students from a “hostile atmosphere” of antisemitism that developed on its campus in 2018.
In spring 2018, 53 of the school’s 360 student clubs agreed to boycott NYU’s two pro-Israel groups, which led to passage of an anti-Israel resolution, circulation of a “threatening” flier, and a week of protests. At an April 2018 rally for Israel, members of SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace set fire to an Israeli flag, and grabbed a student singing the Israeli national anthem. These events left Jewish students at NYU in fear of displaying symbols of their religion.
“The administration essentially told me that they were supportive of the Jewish community, but no concrete actions would be taken against SJP,” Adela Cojab, former president of pro-Israel campus group NYU Realize Israel, told Fox News. The school advised her “not to post on social media and to lower [her] own presence and the presence of [her] community.”
A year later, in April 2019, SJP won the President’s Service Award for its positive effects on the NYU community.
In June, Cojab brought her concerns to the Department of Education. On November 13, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights announced it had begun “a full-scale investigation” into the environment of antisemitism at NYU.
Should the Department of Education decide NYU’s campus environment is harmful, the school will be required to “create a set of remedial steps to address anti-Semitism on campus.” If it fails to do so, its federal funding may be at risk.
Make a Difference
Institutions of higher learning are increasingly in thrall to anti-Israel groups that disguise bigotry and antisemitism behind flowery manipulations of the truth.
As these groups instigate violence and promote an atmosphere of hostility and misinformation, there are hopeful reminders of how each person has the power to make a difference. Graduates of affected institutions may be able to initiate change by reaching out to alumni officers about their rationale for withholding donations.
Responsive administrators like Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley can make an important impact. The Department of Education’s investigation at NYU proves students have options when administrations fail.
Although they may seem the most hopeless, events at York University demonstrate the power of public outcry to put a cold spotlight on antisemitic behaviors and the violence they spawn. Jews and gentiles alike can help ensure campuses are safe for Jewish students in the wake of rising antisemitism. We also must secure freedom of expression in such environments.
In this battle, the freedom to speak is the greatest weapon. Those whose arguments and facts are weak are attempting to supplant free speech rather than engage in dialogue. When we allow those who hate Israel and Judaism to speak freely, their words become their undoing.
The way we amplify the actions and alarming speech of antisemitism, and the words we choose for ourselves, are especially important. It is only by using our voices to spread truth that we can conquer hate and promote dialogues that create solutions rather than rancor.