On Wednesday night, a controversial event hosted at York University called “Reservist on Duty: Hear from former Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers” sparked a protest that saw hundreds join Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) to denounce the presence of IDF personnel on campus, citing reports from the United Nations and Amnesty International that accuse Israeli soldiers of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The event quickly became the centre of a media frenzy as images and video of clashing protesters were picked up and amplified by official news outlets including Global News, the National Post, the Toronto Sun, CityNews and others. With few exceptions, media portrayals have emphasized responses from the same group of people: notably, Mayor John Tory, Liberal MP Michael Levitt, Premier Doug Ford, and the CEO of the Friends of Simon Wisenthal Centre, Avi Benlolo, all of whom portrayed the protesters as a violent, hate-filled mob driven by virulent antisemitism.
On Thursday, Doug Ford tweeted “I am disappointed that York University allowed for a hate-filled protest to take place at Vari Hall.” This sentiment was echoed by John Tory who posted “I have heard concerns from several Jewish groups in our city today. Antisemitism and violence is totally unacceptable.”
In an interview on CityNews, Benlolo claimed that “York University has become a toxic place.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even weighed in, tweeting “On Wednesday night, violence & racist chants broke out against an event organized by the Jewish community at York University.”
I am disappointed that York University allowed for a hate-filled protest to take place last night at Vari Hall. I stand with the Jewish students and the Jewish community. There is no place in Ontario for racism and hatred. #onpoli— Doug Ford (@fordnation) November 21, 2019
The problem with these accusations is the total lack of credible evidence to support them. News reports have honed in on videos of protestors chanting “free free Palestine” and “viva viva Intifada,” presumably as proof of rampant antisemitism on display. But for Palestinians and their supporters, these chants refer to national self-determination and resistance to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Such references are a far cry from antisemitism—unless, of course, we conflate support for the human rights of Palestinians as itself a form of outright discrimination against people of the Jewish faith.
Unfortunately, Tory, Ford, Benlolo and others did not bother to explain what they found so hateful or antisemitic about the protest, nor did they find it expedient for York to conduct an internal investigation before rendering their judgments and fuelling tensions.
With so few dissenting voices appearing in the media coverage that followed the protest, we can hardly blame the public for believing them.
Media reports have also completely ignored evidence of violence that was directed at the protestors. One of them, who is also a teaching assistant at York, was sent to the hospital with a concussion after being punched in the back of the head. Other protestors report being kicked, pulled by their hair and choked by their scarves. According to SAIA, the violence was initiated by members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a far-right group with links to white-supremacist organizations and that is widely considered a terrorist organization. Prior to the protest, York administration sent a letter to Meir Weinstein, national director of the JDL, informing him that “the University does not give permission for individuals to enter our campus lands for the purpose of participating in protest or demonstrations or any other inappropriate conduct.”
Objective journalism and principled politics require that we hear from both sides—as well as impartial witnesses—before drawing conclusions. So long as all criticisms of the Israeli state are immediately and uncritically branded as antisemitic, Palestinian voices will be silenced and barred from public discourse, and coverage of the issue will remain one-sided and unhelpful.
Joel Roberts is a PhD candidate in Social and Political Thought at York University. He has served as the graduate student representative on York’s Board of Governors, and has written about provincial politics, university governance, student protest and media representation.