The University of Toronto has an antisemitism problem -opinion

The Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s failure to push back against antisemitism in the present makes the University of Toronto’s apology for the past less credible and sincere.

 UNIVERSITY FACULTY accused international human rights activist Prof. Irwin Cotler of prejudice against Palestinians (photo credit: REUTERS)
UNIVERSITY FACULTY accused international human rights activist Prof. Irwin Cotler of prejudice against Palestinians
(photo credit: REUTERS)

On September 29, at an event titled “Reflecting on Historic Jewish Learner Quotas in Toronto Medical Education,” the dean of the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine (TFOM) verbally apologized for its quotas on Jewish medical school applicants in the 1940s and ‘50s. My father was one of the few lucky ones to be accepted to the university’s Faculty of Medicine in those years.

Many of his qualified Jewish peers had no such luck. It is a good and welcome step to affirm and apologize for the historical persecution of Jews, but it is tarnished by current events in the TFOM.

The TFOM still has an antisemitism problem. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has for many years led to anti-Jewish sentiments seeping out among faculty and students.

It culminated last January in a manifesto written by university faculty who accused international human rights activist, scholar and community leader Prof. Irwin Cotler of prejudice against Palestinians.

Cotler had spoken on “Contemporary Antisemitism” as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day marked by the TFOM. The professor is Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism.

Thereafter, 45 University of Toronto faculty members including 17 from the TFOM in a letter to the TFOM, attacked the event and Cotler’s lecture for the “erasure of Palestinian voices”.

These faculty members communicated their views in a signed letter to the TFOM. They thought that their letter was private, but it quickly circulated, and it was reported in several mainstream media articles. The TFOM has never responded publicly to the letter.

The signatories to the letter denounced Cotler for urging the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism that has been adopted by Canada, five provinces, and dozens of countries.

Just two months ago, then-outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed said, “The UN must take up my call to use IHRA Working Definition for awareness-raising across the UN system, in line with international human rights standards.”

The 45 faculty members perpetuated an antisemitic tradition of accusing Jews who talk about and define anti-Jewish racism as silencing others.

The non-Jewish signatories to the letter, by opposing the IHRA definition, also purported to define what is antisemitic and what is not, a question that Jews alone should be entitled to resolve for themselves. No other group would allow an outside entity to decide what constitutes prejudice or discrimination against that group.

Faculty members lash out at "interest groups"

THE 45 FACULTY members depicted this Holocaust-remembrance event as “reinforc[ing] anti-Palestinian racism.” By so doing, they trivialized the torment and industrialized murder of Jews in the Holocaust.

They blamed “special interest groups” for targeting the TFOM social-justice theme leading to an effort to silence supporters of Palestinian rights, promoting the classic stereotype of Jews as conspiratorial and dominating.

Cotler’s censure of the grotesque antisemitism at a 2001 UN and NGO conference on racism was derided in their letter as him “label[ing] legitimate criticism of Israel” as antisemitic.

At that NGO conference, delegates witnessed the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and placards proclaiming, “If only Hitler had won.” According to the 45 signatories, such displays now constitute legitimate criticism of Israel.

In response, Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA) sponsored an open letter to the TFOM signed by more than 300 Jewish TFOM members.

The TFOM describes DARA as “Toronto’s Jewish doctors hav[ing] had to come together to support each other and to combat antisemitism as well as other forms of discrimination.” The Jewish faculty called out the 45 faculty-member letter as “an example of the very antisemitism that Mr. Cotler dismantled in his presentation”.

The TFOM leadership says that “there is no place for dehumanizing language, stereotyping or hatred of the ‘other’” in the TFOM. Yet its failure to publicly repudiate the 45 faculty-member letter represents a capitulation to discrimination, not a rejection of it.

Further, the TFOM has not replaced nor advertised for its inaugural antisemitism lead who last June left the position after one year. Other TFOM equity, diversity and inclusion positions remain in place.

The TFOM provided some balance relating to this divisive topic. During Jewish Heritage month the TFOM furnished faculty with a link to the DARA website. But then, the TFOM removed the link from its website, removing the last vestige of specific support for Jewish faculty and students.

The failure to respond to the first letter was a cause for serious concern but the cumulative effect of that failure, the lack of a replacement antisemitism lead and the deletion of the DARA link is disturbing.

Apologies can be useful, even essential for aggrieved groups to move on. The TFOM’s failure to push back against antisemitism in the present makes the University of Toronto’s apology for the past less credible and sincere.

The writer is an officer of the order of Canada and an associate professor at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.