York University launches review after event with ex-Israeli soldiers met with massive protest
‘Acts of violence are not tolerated on our campuses and York University has zero tolerance for hate,’ said York’s president Rhonda Lenton in a statement
TORONTO — York University has launched a review of how it handles free expression on campus over the Middle East conflict, after a Jewish student group’s event featuring former Israeli soldiers was disrupted by a massive protest Wednesday night.
“I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that acts of violence are not tolerated on our campuses and York University has zero tolerance for hate. There is simply no place for it in our community,” said York’s president Rhonda Lenton in a statement. She said she was “deeply disappointed” by the “verbal and physical confrontations.”
“I also believe it is essential to proactively develop strategies for fostering a more productive dialogue around these issues,” she said. “I hope we will continue to challenge ourselves, as a university and a community, to debate and protest passionately, but to do so with respect for differing points of view and generosity towards our opponents.”
Politicians and Jewish groups expressed concern about hatred, racism and violence they said was on display at Vari Hall, York’s main student centre.
“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,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Toronto’s Mayor John Tory said he supports free speech and the right to protest, “but there is absolutely no place for hate or violence in Toronto.”
Video posted to social media of the protest showed little outright violence, but many people jostling in an unruly crowd overseen by police, and loud chanting of “Viva viva Palestina,” “Occupation is a crime,” “viva intifada (uprising)” and “One two three four occupation no more five six seven eight Israel is an apartheid state.”
Const. Allyson Douglas-Cook told the Canadian Press there was a physical altercation involving several people, and one person suffered minor injuries.
There were no arrests although some people were removed by police.
The event was disrupted by the protest but managed to continue, aided by police barring the doors and eventually escorting attendees out. They had seen a presentation by Reservists on Duty, a group of former Israel Defense Forces soldiers who speak on campuses in opposition to anti-Semitism and especially the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to delegitimize Israel.
The event was organized by Herut Canada, a branch of a resurgent movement with a long history in Israeli politics. Herut Zionism is a movement that has relaunched on campuses in Britain and Canada, describing itself as “unapologetic Zionism.”
In Israel, Herut, which means freedom, was a far right-wing nationalist party, founded in 1948 by former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and merged into the Likud party in 1988
The Canadian chapter was launched at York this year and last month was denied official student group status by the student government, but that decision was quickly reversed under pressure from the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had sought access to records of the decision under freedom of information laws.
The protest comes just as Canada changed its traditional course on diplomacy toward the Middle East by voting in favour of a United Nations resolution calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state that maintains the “territorial unity, contiguity and integrity of all of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.”
It also follows a move by the United States to change its position and recognize some Israeli settlements as legal.
Michael Levitt, the local MP for York Centre, said the situation at York was “grossly unacceptable,” and that he was “shocked and appalled by the chaotic scenes of intimidation and anti-Semitism.”
“Hateful anti-Semitic chants, sirens being used to disrupt the speakers and protesters screaming insults at students attending the event are alarming and intolerable,” Levitt said. “The need for police protection from the violence and hate displayed by protesters is shameful in our pluralistic and democratic society.”
“The community has to take urgent and immediate action to provide security for Jewish students in addition to removing hate groups like Students Against Israeli Apartheid and reforming the administration and the student federation to enable the university to ensure a welcoming environment to Jewish students,” said Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, placing blame on York for creating an unsafe environment for Jewish students.
“The Toronto Police Service and York University should be commended for ensuring that this event could be safely held,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “Enraged mobs cannot be allowed to prevent lawful and peaceful gatherings from taking place on campus. Further investigation is required into how a registered student group was permitted to glorify terrorism and attempt to intimidate those peacefully assembling on campus. There must be consequences for violent behaviour.”