Despite opposition from Jewish student leaders, the University of Toronto Scarborough Student Union (SCSU) voted to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) by a margin of 500 to two on November 24, including a policy that bans kosher and other vendors that are pro-Israel.
The new policy states SCSU will “Refrain from engaging with organizations, services, or participating in events that further normalize Israeli apartheid … Efforts should be made to source Kosher food from organizations that do not normalize apartheid, however recognizing the limited availability of this necessity then exemptions can be made if no alternatives are available.”
Steven Greenwood, executive director, StandWithUs Canada, stated, “Implying that kosher establishments should not support the State of Israel is a thoughtless act of discrimination against Jews.”
University of Toronto President Meric Gertler issued a statement on Friday condemning the SCSU motions as inconsistent with the university’s “core values of freedom of speech and inclusion” and pledging to discuss concerns with the SCSU.
“A requirement that providers of food as a religious accommodation be required to apply for an exemption, or even be asked about their views about issues elsewhere in the world is unacceptable,” said Gertler’s statement. “The motions are specifically focused on Israel in a way that is troubling to many members of the community. Such motions would be no more acceptable if focused on another country … ”
Daniel Koren, Executive Director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, stated “While this statement by Meric Gertler was certainly welcomed, he’s going to need to take one more step and ensure that this student union reverse this BDS motion …We’re all watching to see if he will take that necessary step.”
The SCSU did not respond to requests for comment by The Jewish Press.
Maxwell Fine, a Jewish student in SCSU, was absent the day of the vote. He has since petitioned against this motion, stating that it “stripped Jewish students of explicit protections of their freedoms to express their political, social, and religious views.” He previously filed a motion for the student union to receive anti-Semitism training from Dimensions, a nonprofit educational consulting firm, but he said the union refused it because one of Dimensions’ employees is an IDF veteran.
The two students who voted against the motion were sisters Yardena and Gabriela Rosenblum, president and vice president of the Jewish Student Life campus organization. Gabriela explained that some students were too afraid to vote. “They don’t want their name on things, they don’t want to speak up, they don’t want to go and have their face attached to this.”
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, cofounder and director of AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization devoted to investigating anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses, confirmed that these students’ fears are not unfounded. “Almost every study that we’ve done shows a high correlation between BDS activity and the harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students. Schools that have BDS activity were 2.4 times more likely to have incidents of harassment, including assault, vandalism and bullying of Jewish and pro-Israel students. And the University of Toronto’s student union resolution is a stark and quite frightening and dangerous example of how anti-Zionist BDS promotion results in anti-Semitic behavior that directly attacks Jewish students’ identities.”
“The administration has told us on multiple accounts that the student union is an autonomous group, and so there is a limit to how much they are able to do,” Yardena explained. She added, “We would like the university to actually take power over this organization because there is obviously some jurisdiction since they have made fees to the student union mandatory.”
Students are required to pay approximately $500-$600 in fees each semester to the student union.
Yardeba is hoping that B’nai B’rith will help bring this matter before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Koren has the same position. “In my opinion, these universities have an obligation to step up and intervene when the rights of students are being violated. When there is anti-Semitism or any form of hatred that is being promulgated by these student groups, then indeed universities do need to intervene and step up.”
The SCSU motion also rejected the accusation that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic due to its criticism of the state of Israel.
“BDS says whomever validates and promotes Israel equals apartheid and therefore BDS is guilty of validating and promoting anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Although pro-Israel students groups are impacted by the new policy, Israel Apartheid Week has been hosted by the student union annually since 2013.