Last October, a pro-boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) group at the University of Toronto organized an event called “Divest from Israel’s War Crimes.” The event was disrupted by the Jewish Defense League and the school administration then cancelled the event, and organizers had to relocate the meeting. A faculty group at the school has sent two letters to Angela Hildyard, a university vice-president, to say that the university failed to take appropriate action, either at the time of the disruption or afterwards. We publish the second letter below, dated December 11. It has gone unanswered for two months. The signatories were asked for permission to publish; no one requested anonymity. –Editors
To Professor Angela Hildyard
Vice-President, Human Resources & Equity
University of Toronto
December 11, 2014
Dear Professor Hildyard,
Thank you for your reply of November 6 to our letter of complaint and concern about the disruption of the Graduate Student Union’s (GSU) event “Divest from Israel’s War Crimes” at the OISE [Ontario Institute for Studies in Education] auditorium on the evening of October 27, 2014.
We note that you “will be looking into the facts regarding this specific event.” To do so, you will need to speak to those of us who were present at the event and subjected to the disruption by the Jewish Defense League (JDL). We look forward to meeting with you.
That the event was deliberately disrupted by the JDL is proudly acknowledged by the JDL itself. [“U of T Graduate Students Union Cries ‘WOLF’ After JDL Disrupts BDS Event at OISE”]
Disingenuously, the JDL tries to have it both ways. Their spokesperson, Mr. Meir Weinstein, told The Varsity: “that he did not think there was much of a disruption at all. ‘If anything it was an over-reaction. There were one or two people that took a strong exception to some of the terminologies which were being used, and then after that some of the people on the BDS side went ballistic,” he said.
Mr. Weinstein’s narrative is false (apart from being contradicted by the triumphant JDL post). As any of the signatories to this letter can attest, the disruption was clearly pre-planned and coordinated. After much ill-mannered and intimidating shouting by his friends, the ring-leader moved about the room whispering (instructions?) to them. This was moments before the actual disruption, when the ring-leader strode to the microphone and dared anyone to touch him, on pain of being charged with assault. Needless to say, no one had the slightest intention of laying a finger on him. The meeting was effectively disrupted. The audience left the room at the request of Campus Police, “conceding the field” to the disruptors. After an hour’s wait in the OISE lobby, during which time the disruptors refused to leave the auditorium, your office instructed the GSU organizers (via Campus Police) to cancel the event. This is a clear violation of step 4 of the Policy on the Disruption of Meetings: “If they [disruptors] refuse to leave and it is not possible to remove them without risking violent resistance, the meeting should be recessed or adjourned. An adjournment under such circumstances should generally last for as short a time as possible, and the University authorities will undertake to provide the opportunity for the meeting to take place in a suitable environment.” In fact, a room was known to be available to the GSU organizers, but when the organizers suggested changing venues to the campus police, they refused this solution. This is a clear violation of the abovementioned policy, which should be investigated and accounted for.
Professor Hildyard, in your letter you shower us with University policies and exhortations to dialogue. But none of these admirable policies protected us, though we abided by them scrupulously, from crude intimidation and disruption by those who appear not to care either for rational dialogue or for the values supposedly enshrined in those policies.
Given that the JDL has an established history of engaging in racist hate speech and political violence abroad (its parent organization is outlawed in Israel, and the JDL itself is banned in the US and the EU), and now a record of harassment and intimidation on our campus, we ask your office to carefully consider whether this organization can continue to be welcome at University events. If disciplinary action can be meted out to disruptive University members (as indicated by step 2 of the Policy on the Disruption of Meetings), then surely the University has the authority to ban groups not affiliated with the University from campus events.
If the University administration is serious about protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech in its official pronouncements as well as in its actions, then its policies on these issues must be strictly enforced. If not, then at the very least, the University administration must make clear what its course of action will be if further harassment and disruptions are perpetrated by the JDL or other groups against the GSU campaign or other similarly controversial campus events.
Present at the event:
Prof. Jens Hanssen (History and NMC)
Prof. Shahrzad Mojab (OISE)
Prof. Em. Chandler Davis (Mathematics)
Prof. Em. Roger Beck (Classics and Historical Studies)
Prof. Alejandro Paz (Anthropology)
Blair Kuntz, Librarian
Dr. Rand Askalan (Paediatrics)
Dr. Regis Pomes (Biochemistry)
Prof. Heather Sykes (OISE)
Prof. Rania Salem (Sociology)
Supporting signatures by concerned faculty:
Prof. Katherine Blouin (Classics and Historical and Cultural Studies)
Prof. Francis Cody (Anthropology and Asian Institute)
Prof. Rebecca Comay (Philosophy and Comparative Literature)
Prof. Girish Daswani (Anthropology)
Prof. Mohammed Fadel (Law)
Prof. Paul Hamel (Medicine)
Prof. Em. Amir Hassanpour (NMC)
Prof. Paul Kingston (Political Science)
Prof. Kirsta Maxwell (Anthropology)
Prof. Andrea Muehlebach (Anthropology)
Prof. Bhavani Raman (History)
Prof. Natalie Rothman (History)
Prof. Em. Gavin Smith (Anthropology)