A blow to the Israel lobby

A large campaign that forced the University of Toronto to re-offer a job to Valentina Azarova is a blow to the Israel lobby. But her rejection of the position highlights the lobby’s power to torment individuals.

A year ago a University of Toronto law school hiring committee unanimously selected Azarova to direct its International Human Rights Program. She was offered the job contingent on ironing out some immigration hurdles. But the job was suddenly withdrawn after pressure from Tax Court of Canada judge David Spiro, chair of United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Toronto’s Public Affairs Committee and former co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) Toronto. After being contacted about Azarova by anti-Palestinian bigot Gerald Steinberg, CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel asked Spiro to raise the issue during a scheduled fund-raising call with a university assistant vice-president. According to Steinberg’s email to CIJA officials, “the hope is that through quiet discussions, top university officials will realize that this appointment is academically unworthy … and that a public protest campaign will do major damage to the university, including in fundraising.” In response to Spiro raising Azarova’s purported anti-Israel scholarship an assistant dean emailed other university officials that “the Jewish community would not be pleased by the Preferred Candidate’s appointment.”

Spiro’s influence over the University of Toronto largely comes from his family’s wealth. His uncle, Larry Tanenbaum, owner of the Toronto Raptors, financed the University’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies. One of a half dozen wealthy donors that replaced the nominally democratic Canadian Jewish Congress with the donor-run CIJA, Larry Tanenbaum and his brother have given the University of Toronto at least $10 million and helped raise $10 million more.

CIJA and Spiro’s pull at the University is magnified by their ties to other pro-Israel donors. The source of the institution’s largest ever donation worked with the Tanenbaums to found CIJA. In 2019 Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman donated $100 million to the University of Toronto.

The Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies has close ties with the University of Toronto’s Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies. Alongside funding for the Anne Tanenbaum Centre, the famously Zionist Bronfman family provided $1.5 million to create the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies. The Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies is now part of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, which was set up in 2010 with $35 million from Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk. In 1999 the Canadian Jewish News reported on a sizable donation Munk made to Israel’s Technion university and a speech in which he “suggested that Israel’s survival is dependent on maintaining its technological superiority over the Arabs.”

Beyond their ties to wealthy donors, Spiro and CIJA are pushing against an open door. An insider breached confidentiality by releasing information pertaining to Azarova’s application and the Canadian Jewish News’ profile of University of Toronto President, Meric Gertler, suggests he’s an Israel supporter.

In other circumstances CIJA may have succeeded in leveraging their influence to affect hiring policy with few noticing. But the administration handled the withdrawal of Azarova’s job offer poorly and the hiring committee loudly criticized the outside intervention. Simultaneously, public pressure forced the Canadian Judicial Council to investigate Spiro for bias and over 1,000 academics signed a public letter critical of the flagrant assault on academic freedom. Ratcheting the campaign up significantly, the 70,000 member Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) censured Canada’s largest and most influential university.

In a bid to tamp down the uproar, the university administration hired a former Supreme Court Justice, Thomas Cromwell, to muddy the waters. In his report into the scandal Cromwell laid out a damning set of facts but exonerated the administration, noting “I would not draw the inference that external influence played any role in the decision to discontinue the recruitment of the Preferred Candidate.” Gertler and the University administration played up the exoneration, but for those who looked beyond the headlines the report confirmed the extent of outside intervention and administrators’ deference to donors.

Cromwell’s absurd exoneration of University of Toronto administrators wasn’t the first time he had put his Supreme Court credentials at service of a Toronto university looking to clean up an Israel lobby mess. Amidst an uproar about a supposedly anti-Semitic protest on campus York hired Cromwell to whitewash the university’s handling of what was in fact Jewish Defence League aligned thugs attacking peaceful pro-Palestinian students protesting a November 2019 presentation by Israeli military reservists. One of the Palestinian solidarity victims was reportedly knocked unconscious, but Cromwell scapegoated Students Against Israel Apartheid. In a sign of Cromwell’s sympathies, he was keynote speaker at a CIJA/UJA conference while overseeing an inquiry into whether a UJA representative and former CIJA official acted improperly in the Azarova affair.

As the CAUT boycott of the University of Toronto gained steam, B’nai B’rith labeled all those defending academic freedom “anti-Semitic”. In response to the recent announcement concerning Azarova, B’nai Brith’s senior legal advisor, David Matas reiterated the group’s position proclaiming, “the suggestion that her initial non-hiring had anything to do with Jewish money and influence remains an unacceptable antisemitic trope.”

Simultaneously, B’nai B’rith began to prepare for the possibility that the university would reverse itself by calling on the federal government to presumptively deny Azarova a work permit. In effect, the ‘human rights’ group asked the federal government to ban international academics from working in Canada if they had been critical of Israel’s violation of international law!

This is the context in which Azarova was re-offered the position to lead the law school’s International Human Rights Program. She says university administrators negotiated in good faith and offered her academic freedom. But Azarova declined the position because she didn’t want to be hounded by anti-Palestinian groups and the University of Toronto couldn’t protect her from Israel lobby attacks. (Prior to the Azarova affair B’nai B’rith responded to two University of Toronto student votes in support of Palestinian rights by launching a campaign against what it called “institutional anti-Semitism” at a university with a Jewish president, major Jewish donors as well as many Jewish students and faculty.)

Alongside re-offering Azarova the position, the University of Toronto updated its guidelines to emphasize “the importance of institutional autonomy and confidentiality in all hiring decisions.” In a de facto recognition that donors leveraged contributions to thwart Azarova’s hiring, the university sought to clarify the “appropriate terms for interaction with alumni and donors.”

At one level the Azarova affair has been a huge embarrassment for the Israel lobby. It drew significant attention to their use of money and insider influence to interfere in academic affairs while the CAUT-led boycott forced Canada’s largest university to re-offer Azarova the position. But Azarova’s reason for declining the job demonstrate that even in defeat the Israel lobby’s capacity to torment people is powerful.

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