When teachers harbor anti-Israel biases, students also suffer

As a Jewish student at the University of Toronto, with antisemitic sentiment rising across Canada and the US, it has been particularly taxing, as my campus is no stranger to such controversy.

University of Toronto  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
University of Toronto
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The beginning of the school year has brought many changes and uncertainties for students in the new, post-COVID world in which we find ourselves.
As a Jewish student at the University of Toronto, with antisemitic sentiment rising across Canada and the US, it has been particularly taxing, as my campus is no stranger to such controversy. I have personally faced instances of discrimination, ranging from individual acts to more organized incidents, such as the recent refusal to endorse kosher food options by the U of T Graduate Students’ Union.
Many of the cases involving the harassment of Jewish students (including the example above) on campus involve Israel, due to the rancorous nature in which some student groups target the Jewish state.
It’s not just students. Professors who are known to be staunchly anti-Israel also contribute to this culture of toxicity. You might recall a few years ago when a student named Ari Blaff was scornfully referred to as a “Zionist agent” by his U of T professor over his involvement in Hasbara Fellowships Canada, an organization that helps dispel anti-Israel propaganda on campus through the use of public diplomacy. I am a proud fellow myself.
There are other all-too-familiar stories I’ve heard from my peers who challenge their professors over their bias and omission of key details vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict. These students are often told that their narrative is invalid, and that Jews are colonizers in their native land. In some cases, the students are even ostracized.
In my view, this is nothing short of groupthink and academic intimidation.
It was with this in mind that I felt relieved when I learned my university had passed on hiring Valentina Azarova, an “international legal academic and practitioner,” to head its Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program.
I will not speculate on the specific of the issue. Some media outlets, the Toronto Star in particular, have suggested that the U of T was influenced by an external party due to Azarova’s work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is overwhelmingly prejudiced against Israel. The university says it never made an official offer to Azarova.
HOWEVER, I will speak to my own experiences as a Jewish student. When a professor harbors a bias against Israel, it makes for a challenging and even dangerous space for us to speak out about our indigenous homeland. That’s why when professors speak about the Arab-Israeli issue, they must offer narratives of all the players involved, give a balanced and nuanced understanding of the conflict, and most importantly, be impartial and objective. Anything less would be to the detriment of students.
Valentina Azarova, however, does not fit that bill.
As an academic, Azarova has contributed to outlets that have repeatedly denied Israel’s right to exist, such as The Electronic Intifada and al Majdal magazine. She has also rubbed shoulders with those who hold terrorist sympathies such as the anti-Israel organization al-Haq, which has ties with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – a designated terrorist entity by the Canadian government.
When a professor – often tenured and decades older than their students – pushes an anti-Israel agenda, they are doing more than sharing their personal opinions; they are intimidating students from dissenting. To be fair, professors are free to express opinions critical of Israel, and indeed any country. The issue arises when students are discouraged or intimidated from speaking out and challenging the prevailing orthodoxy of anti-Israel views in the classroom.
Appointing Azarova as the head of the prestigious International Human Rights Program would not only make any discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict biased against Israel within the program itself, it would further alienate Jewish students on campus.
In my experience, not only on at U of T but in academic communities more broadly, there is a continuous double-standard applied to calls of discrimination. When it is Jewish or Israeli students who are targeted, the activist types so usually concerned with human rights and combating xenophobia often fall silent.
Despite my own calls to look at the archaeological and historical data that reveals a continuous Jewish presence in Israel, I have instead, in the classroom been called a “colonizer” and “supporter of an illegitimate government.” Such behavior has almost always garnered acceptance from my professors throughout my undergraduate career.
Azarova’s supporters say by her not being selected the university is not honoring its commitment to fostering free speech and scholarly debate. As a Jewish student, I say that my identity and my homeland is not up for debate.
The writer is a Hasbara Fellow and undergraduate student at the University of Toronto.