In recent months, we have witnessed a full-frontal attack on academic freedom at our university. The attack takes shape across seemingly disparate events—a hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law, the demonization of the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) president, and the vilification of a colleague in the Faculty of Medicine. These events are in fact held together by a common thread: the attempt to shut down speech and scholarship that support Palestinian human rights. Like the boy who cried “wolf,” the attacks repeatedly lay false charges of imminent danger—in this case, of anti-Semitism.
Let’s be clear. U of T has a shameful past of anti-Semitism and as long as anti-Semitism persists in Canada, Jews at U of T may encounter it on campus as well. But these accusations are not about protecting a beleaguered oppressed people. Rather, they represent a cynical effort to invoke Jewish trauma in a weaponizing manner, aimed to silence a growing movement of faculty and students who reject the Palestine exception and refuse the insinuation that recognizing and respecting Palestinian human rights is anti-Semitic.
As Jewish professors, we embrace this growing solidarity with Palestinian people, consistent with a tradition of social justice well established in Jewish history and teachings. We refuse the exploitation of past and contemporary suffering of Jewish people to silence scholarship and activism in support of Palestinian rights.
It is such a misplaced cry of anti-Semitism that animated a hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law last fall, when the hiring process of Dr. Valentina Azarova was halted following a donor’s concern about her work on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories. The scandal brought shame to the university administration for undermining the very commitment to the human rights field that the hire was meant to support.
When the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) unanimously voted to censure U of T for its scandalous conduct, an international campaign organized by a diverse group of U of T scholars—Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim and others—united in support. Opponents labelled CAUT and censure supporters as ‘anti-Semitic.’ But prominent Israeli legal scholars insisted in a submission to the Cromwell inquiry, which investigated the controversy, that Azarova’s research is “totally consistent with the position of the International Court of Justice… [a] view shared by most experts in international law, including foremost Israeli experts in the field.”
Then, yet another attack was launched—this time charging that the UTFA president allegedly had “a problem with anti-Semitism” for comments made about the harassment she faced from this same political camp. The attack took place after the faculty association had taken steps to protect academic freedom at U of T in the context of a heated struggle over the censure. The charges, once again, have no substance.
As conflict erupted in Israel-Palestine in May, another attack focused attention on a colleague in the Faculty of Medicine, who was falsely accused of anti-Semitism for comments made in support of Palestinian liberation on their private Twitter account. Again, vibrant community support defended the colleague and Palestinian rights. And again, the charges fell flat.
Just as with the legendary boy who cried “wolf” when there was no such predator in sight, these false claims of anti-Semitism are dangerous. They harm Palestinians and those who research and advocate for Palestinian rights. And they can leave us all vulnerable when the real beast of anti-Jewish racism bares its fangs.
But these attacks keep failing. Instead, a burgeoning multi-racial, multi-faith movement in solidarity with Palestinian human rights continues to build—and it challenges anti-Semitism explicitly, together with all other forms of racism. If anything, these attacks have served to inspire more organizing and community building at U of T to defend Palestinian rights and to challenge all forms of racism and colonialism on our campus and beyond.
Abigail B. Bakan, Professor, University of Toronto
Rebecca Comay, Professor, University of Toronto
Deborah Cowen, Professor, University of Toronto