Antisemitism in universities: When an apology is not enough

On 21 December 2022, Canada’s paper of record, the (Toronto) Globe and Mail published an op-ed by Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto (UofT).

The article did not discuss noteworthy academic achievements or reflect on the first full year of on-campus classes since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Rather, it outlined UofT’s response to serious charges of antisemitism at its Temerty Faculty of Medicine (TFOM) laid out in the article “Reflections on addressing antisemitism in a Canadian faculty of medicine” published 17 days earlier in the Canadian Medical Education Journal, written by Professor Ayelet Kuper, a physician at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and scientist and associate director of the Wilson Centre for Research in Education. Both institutions are affiliated with UofT.

Kuper, who served from 2021 to 2022 as the TFOM’s senior advisor on antisemitism, details a number of incidents in which non-Jews rehearsed age-old antisemitic tropes, including that “a Jewish classmate had the power to block their residency matches”, that all Jews are liars, that Jews “control the university, or the faculty, to oppress or hurt others”.

She has been subject “to a long list of microaggressions perpetuated by otherwise lovely, reflexive people at TFOM and its affiliated hospitals about Jews being pushy, demanding and in charge, Jews having (or wanting) lots of money and Jews only looking out for other Jews”.

Some students even said that the reason the faculty bears James Temerty’s name is because the Canadian businessman and philanthropist is Jewish. He isn’t.

Kuper, the child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, reports that over the past few years, she has been berated for ‘appropriating’ the concept of ‘intergenerational trauma’ by non-First Nations colleagues who claim to be acting as allies for First Nations people. The concept of ‘intergenerational trauma’ was first defined in 1966 by Canadian psychologists who noted that many of their patients were children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

In a letter to UofT’s board of governors sent a day before his op-ed was published, Gertler expands on his statement in the op-ed that Kuper “described deeply troubling instances of age-old stereotypes about Jewish power and conspiracies that are still present in some of our learning spaces”.

To the board, he wrote: “Antisemitism subverts and demeans our entire community, not just those who are targeted … No statement from the president, no apology from a faculty, no guideline or training program will eradicate antisemitism or any other kind of racism. They are crucially important tools, yes, and we will continue to raise awareness and pursue every measure available. But ultimately, progress will come from the actions of the community together – from education, solidarity, speaking out, challenging casual discrimination, standing with our Jewish friends and colleagues.”

A long history of antisemitism

While Kuper, Dr Steve Samuel, a member of the board of the Toronto-based Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA), and Dr Philip Berger, who is an associate professor at TFOM, claim that antisemitism became more open at TFOM following the war in Gaza in 2021, all say antisemitism at TFOM long predates it.

Samuel recalls that when he was a resident at UofT’s medical school in the early 1980s, his surgical supervisor was an immigrant from Latvia. One day they were discussing the fact that the supervisor’s father had been in the German forces, the Latvian SS, Samuel surmised. “And then he told me that the Jews got what they deserved because they were all communists.

“I was at the time a junior resident and I was speechless,” Samuel told University World News.

Decades later, a Jewish student told Samuel that one of his supervising physicians had rolled his eyes when, during rounds, the student began explaining a patient’s case by saying, “This 65-year-old Israeli-born woman.”

“In the years before Gaza,” writes Kuper, “I overheard faculty colleagues complaining about ‘those Jews who think their Holocaust means they know something about oppression’.”

The introduction of quotas

In the 1920s, concern over the number of Jewish students led university administrators of North America’s elite universities like Harvard, Columbia and McGill universities as well as UofT, almost all of whom were white male Protestants, to institute quota systems.

In 1926, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, put in place an unofficial quota system, and an official grades-based one three years later: ‘Hebrews’ required 700 high school matriculation points while ‘non-Hebrews’ were admitted with 630 high school matriculation marks. Under this regimen, the percentage of Jewish students quickly fell from 25% to 12%, notes historian Bonnie K Goodman in “McGill University’s Complicated History of Antisemitism and now anti-Zionism”.

Although it became less restrictive over the decades, McGill did not fully abolish the anti-Jewish quota until 1969: less than a decade before I enrolled there as a visiting student in 1978.

The UofT medical faculty’s anti-Jewish quota worked differently. Perhaps taking a page from Harvard’s developing antisemitic admissions playbook, UofT’s medical faculty required applicants to indicate their religion. This allowed the faculty to admit non-Jews with lower grades than comparable Jewish applicants.

In the mid-1950s, says Dr Joanna Krongold, a postgraduate fellow at the university’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, who investigated the medical faculty’s antisemitic history, the percentage of Jewish attendees never exceeded roughly 20%. One of these lucky ones, Berger told University World News, was his father.

At a ceremony on 29 September 2022, Dean of TFOM Trevor Young apologised for the faculty’s “intentional and pernicious” quota system. He acknowledged the harm this had done to the city’s Jewish community and how it fostered an antisemitic culture in the faculty; a large part of Krongold’s report consists of Jewish graduates of the faculty telling stories of how they experienced antisemitism in the faculty.

Coincidentally, Young’s apology came two weeks before a similar one from Stanford University in California about its admissions practices designed to restrict the number of Jewish students accepted.

The apology followed the report of a task force, chaired by Professor Ari Y Kelman of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and an expert in Jewish life in America, titled A Matter Requiring the Utmost Discretion: A Report from the Advisory Task Force on the History of Jewish Admissions and Experience at Stanford University. Kelman attributes the policy largely to Rixford K Snyder, director of admissions from the early 1950s to the early 1970s.

“This is happening now,” says Kelman, “at schools across North America – whether it’s talking about Native American schools in Canada [a reference to the thousands of unmarked graves recently discovered in dozens of Canada’s former residential schools] and the United States, or its about Harvard’s link to slavery, the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton [recently renamed because of President Wilson’s racist beliefs and acts] or Georgetown University [which is in the process of paying reparations to descendants of slaves it sold].

“Schools are beginning to take a hard look at their own histories, even when that history is not so pleasant, to try to reckon with their own path in order to make sense of what it is that they became.”

A timorous approach

However, as Berger wrote on 11 October 2022 in the Jerusalem Post, it is difficult for the Jewish community to take UofT’s apology for the school’s history of antisemitism seriously at the same time that the university is, in his and DARA’s view, timorous in combating antisemitism among the TFOM faculty – as exemplified by a letter, signed by 45 faculty members, the minority of whom are Jewish, sent to the UofT’s administration following a speech given by Professor Irwin Cotler on 26 January 2022 to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Cotler was a former Liberal member of parliament, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada as well as being a noted lawyer. He was Nelson Mandela’s Canadian counsel, in 2003 he successfully represented the Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim and has represented both Jews and Palestinians in cases brought against them by their own governments. Cotler is presently the government of Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism.

According to the letter, since UofT has not adopted the definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), by using it in his speech, Cotler undermined UofT’s own efforts to define antisemitism.

Further, the letter argued that Cotler “reinforced anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing erasure of Palestinian voices” because he focused on antisemitism.

The letter also referred to Jews as a “special interest group” for having stood up against antisemitic incidents that occurred the previous year. Calling Jews a “special interest group”, Kuper writes, “invoke the age-old canard of Jews as a secret cabal operating behind the scenes in non-Jewish institutions”.

In response to the letter critiquing Cotler, more than 300 Jewish faculty members of the TFOM and 40 other UofT Jewish faculty members wrote an open letter (Open Letter) to Young, TFOM’s dean, identifying seven instances of falsehoods and “warped polemics” contained in the letter.

In noting that UofT has not “banned or prohibited the use, teaching or discussion of the IHRA working definition”, the Open Letter points out that the IHRA definition “has been adopted by Canada and dozens of countries” and, as Cotler knew, the government of the province of Ontario.

The Open Letter goes on to point out that Cotler’s defence of Jews was not “anti-Palestinian racism”; the notion that it was perpetuates “an antisemitic tradition of accusing Jews who defend themselves as erasing the voices and suppressing the lives of others”. Characterising a Holocaust remembrance event as anti-Palestinian “trivialise and demean the torment and industrial murder of Jews in the Holocaust”.

According to Berger and Samuel, Jewish medical students feared that writing or signing a similar letter to Young would negatively impact their careers. “They were scared about their evaluations or getting reference letters when they put their name to anything like this.”

The issue of Zionism

On 19 December, two days before Gertler’s op-ed was published, the JFN, a national group of 180 Jewish faculty, wrote a letter to UofT critiquing the letter signed by 300 faculty that had criticised the JFN’s criticism of Cotler. After enumerating what it saw as misrepresentations of its positions, the JFN cut to the nub of its difference with DARA: the relationship between academic freedom and Zionism.

For their part, both DARA and the 300 signatories to the open letter argue that any argument for the dismantling of Israel is racist speech and should be called such.

Citing a number of UN resolutions, the letter signed by 45 faculty argues that Zionism is a form of racism and, therefore, Zionists are anti-Palestinian racists.

Gertler’s op-ed tries to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis by focusing attention on UofT’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech. While pledging to “address the scourge of antisemitism”, which included “owning up to past injustices”, he insisted that “universities must . . . be places where critical debate about contentious issues can take place”.

Further, he wrote, this “includes both the right to call out antisemitism and the right to criticise the actions of the state of Israel”. Echoing a number of American commentators, Gertler wrote that “the remedy for controversial speech is more speech, not less”.

An unseen problem

Neither Berger nor Samuel think that the administration of TFOM is antisemitic. “In some respects,” they told me, “we’ve had good, direct communications, Zoom sessions, with the faculty’s administrators and they’ve expressed understanding for our concerns and the students’ and for the evidence presented from our personal experiences. The reaction of the listeners on the administrative side was one of shock; they said they were really shocked to hear this.”

What Berger, Samuel and Kuper do think, however, is that TFOM looks upon Jews and their complaints differently than they would other groups identified under the Ontario Human Rights Code that require special protection: for example, First Nations, black, people of colour and LGBTQ students.

One reason for this is that UofT does not designate Jews as an “at risk group”. In fact, Kuper reported that one faculty member told her that “Jews mustn’t be allowed to speak on their own behalf about antisemitism and shouldn’t even be subject to the protection from discrimination as outlined in the Ontario Human Rights Code”.

Kuper was also told that antisemitism “could not be addressed in a teaching session [in the equity, diversity and inclusion workshops] because such teaching might normalise the existence of the state of Israel, which is beyond the bounds of acceptable”.

With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Samuel said that when, several years ago, UofT developed an action plan to deal with on-campus discrimination against black students, the plan included actionable timelines of when things were supposed to occur. “When the Antisemitism Working Group’s report came out a year or so ago, it was like, ‘You know, yes. We do agree it’s a terrible thing, antisemitism. And we’ll make sure that there’s going to be kosher food on campus’.”

Working group

In his letter to the board of governors, Gertler listed a suite of 10 actions UofT has recently undertaken to combat antisemitism, including the convening of a Presidential, Provostial and Vice-Presidential Working Group on Antisemitism. Further actions include:

• Regular meetings between the Institutional Equity Office and members from the Jewish students’ group, Hillel, to increase opportunities for partnership, understanding and relationship-building;

• Reinforcement of the university’s duty to accommodate and raise awareness on the steps to report hate-related vandalism in the annual message to all employees (supporting an inclusive and welcoming community);

• Recruitment for the position of Consultant: Faith and Antiracism, who will report to the executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion.

On 26 December, DARA welcomed the fact that on his trip to Israel last November, Gertler strongly implied that UofT would not be part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. DARA took the occasion to point out that, almost a year after Cotler spoke, it “still await Dr Gertler’s repudiation of the 45-faculty letter” and that doing so would constitute one of the steps necessary “to confront antisemitism directly” at the University of Toronto.

‘No sign of change’

When I contacted Berger a few days ago to see if he had any further comment after consultation with DARA, he sent me this statement, which indicates that patience had run out: “President Gertler’s self-serving op-ed, just like the university’s planned restorative circle for ‘healing’ the victims of anti-Jewish racism, misses the mark entirely.

“Until the university directly confronts the antisemitic attacks on Jews who identify as Zionists and who support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, hatred against Jews will continue unabated at the university. Jewish faculty and students and their community should take note. The university is presently not a safe place for Jews and there is no sign of change.”