Antisemitism or anger at Palestinian solidarity in U of T medical faculty?

A recent ‘report’ on antisemitism at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine (TFOM) points to Jewish influence, not oppression, within the University of Toronto. Reaction to the dubious article highlights anti-Palestinianism.

Recently, TFOM’s outgoing Senior Advisor on Anti-Semitism Ayelet Kuper published “Reflections on addressing antisemitism in a Canadian faculty of medicine” in the Canadian Medical Education Journal. With the assistance of a press release from Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) Kuper’s ‘report’ on purported animus towards Jews generated a slew of deferential headlines: “University of Toronto medical school report reveals the shameful realities of antisemitism today” (Globe and Mail), “Damning report on antisemitism at U of T medical school sparks call for inquiry” (Toronto Star), “Shocking anti-Semitism at University of Toronto’s medical school: report” (Toronto Sun), “Why don’t we recognize Jews as victims of racism?” (Toronto Star), “Silence, as antisemitism abounds at U of T Faculty of Medicine” (National Post), “Is antisemitism really that bad at the University of Toronto’s medical school? These doctors say ‘yes’” (Canadian Jewish News), “University of Toronto’s medical school has been permeated with antisemitism and discrimination, charges a new report from one of its professors” (Canadian Jewish News), “Professor reveals pervasive antisemitism at University of Toronto Medical School” (Jewish News Syndicate) and “University of Toronto medical school’s antisemitism epidemic exposed” (Jerusalem Post). Kuper’s article was also raised by FSWC head Michael Levitt in his Toronto Star column, a Globe and Mail editorial headlined “The fight against antisemitism requires solidarity with Jewish Canadians, not just sympathy” and a CBC article sub headlined “Progressive left criticized for ignoring incidents of antisemitism”. In the opinion of the Chair of the Canadian Anti Hate Network, Bernie Farber, it is “Perhaps one of the most egregious post war [WWII] reports of Jew hatred in Canada.”

While detailing some genuinely anti-Jewish experiences, Kuper’s article is largely apologia for apartheid and includes bizarre claims that those who reject antisemitism fear being labeled “Jew-lovers” and that the left is “Jew washing” its opposition to apartheid. Not hiding the centrality of a battle over colonization, Kuper writes that the “the most well-publicized episode of antisemitism at TFOM this year” was criticism of Canada’s most prominent anti-Palestinian activist. On January 26 TFOM’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion organized a talk with Irwin Cotler, which prompted 45 faculty members (some of whom were Jewish) to send a confidential letter to the dean of TFOM complaining the event “reinforced anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing and erasure of Palestinian voices.” In the private letter they pointed out that students and faculty who support “Palestinian life and liberation” are harassed with “calls into the office” to discuss their personal social media posts. The letter, which was subsequently leaked, also complained that the Cotler event promoted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism despite the University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group having rejected the anti-Palestinian document two months earlier.

Zionists at TFOM were outraged their hero was challenged. “Over 300 Jewish TFOM faculty members”, notes Kuper, wrote a letter that denounced purported “falsehoods, twisted logic and antisemitic rhetoric” in the letter signed by 45 of their colleagues. The anti-Palestinian letter was launched by a group calling itself Doctors Against Racism and Anti-Semitism whose Honorary Board includes Cotler, Barbara Kay, Robert Lantos and other noted anti-Palestinians. DARA’s site boasts it has “collaborated with” rabidly anti-Palestinian group Honest Reporting Canada.

Kuper’s article reads partly as an attack on Jewish colleagues who don’t share her devotion to apartheid. The Israel-born academic bemoans “a small number of people who identify as Jews or as having Jewish heritage among the group of people whom I have witnessed to be encouraging antisemitism at TFOM.” Kuper condemns what she calls “Jew-washing”. According to the special adviser, “there is also a very specific history of non-Jews (especially on the political left) using a small number of co-opted Jews to hide behind in order to give them permission to be viciously antisemitic, a practice sometimes referred to as Jew-washing.”

For Kuper internationalist anti-colonial solidarity is “anti-Jewish hatred … hiding behind the Palestinian cause.” She adds that “growing support for antisemitism at TFOM has been carefully re-framed since the spring of 2021 [when many protested the killing of Palestinians] as political activism against Israel.” Apparently, TFOM’s antisemites got together June 2, 2021, to reframe their age-old hatred.

Kuper is also angry with those at TFOM who don’t conform to her ahistorical and self-serving description of Zionism. Adopting pseudo-progressive language, she complains about TFOM faculty “appropriating the Jewish term ‘Zionism’ and attempting to redefine it” as a racist, colonialist, ideology. But until Israel’s creation Zionists openly described their colonial plan. Theodore Hertzel called it colonialism and in 1944 the New England Jewish National Fund published a pamphlet titled “A Colony in Palestine”.

Furthermore, Zionism was not even a Jewish idea. According to Evangelics and Israel, “Christian proto-Zionists [existed] in England 300 years before modern Jewish Zionism emerged.” Until the mid-1800s Zionism was an almost entirely non-Jewish movement with dozens of books published about Jews returning to Palestine. The movement reflected the more literal readings of the Bible that flowed out of the Protestant Reformation.

Zionism’s roots in Canada are Christian as well. At the time of Confederation Canada’s preeminent Christian Zionist was Henry Wentworth Monk who “took part in the first attempt at a Zionist agricultural settlement in Palestine,” claims his biography. To buy Palestine from the Ottomans (Turkey) Monk began the Palestine Restoration Fund in 1875 decades before Theodore Hertzel’s Zionist Congress.

Today, there are many non-Jews who identify as Zionist. For example, Kuper may be familiar with Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper.

So how did someone blinded by a supremacist ideology get appointed Senior Advisor on Anti-Semitism? B’nai B’rith suggests their pressure helped. They have been criticizing the university since students there started Israel Apartheid Week in 2005. More recently, the Israel lobby group responded to a series of student votes in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement by claiming the university was antisemitic. In 2020 representatives of B’nai B’rith met President Meric Gertler and the university’s senior leadership to present them with a 30-page report entitled “Confronting Antisemitism at the University of Toronto: A Path Forward”.

The specific trigger for Kuper’s appointment was an internal dispute within TFOM during Toronto’s largest ever Palestine solidarity protests in Spring 2021. On May 15, 13,000 rallied at Nathan Phillips Square, which is walking distance from the University of Toronto and some of its medical facilities. Zionists panicked when many in the Faculty of Medicine echoed the protesters. In the most high-profile incident, Israel apologists called for the removal of TFOM’s social justice, anti-oppression and advocacy theme lead, Ritika Goel, in response to social media posts in support of Palestinians. In the letter announcing Kuper’s appointment as Special Adviser on Anti-Semitism TFOM dean Trevor Young stated plainly that the position (alongside a Senior Advisor on Islamophobia) was a reaction to protests over Palestinian rights.

In another display of politically Zionist influence at the U of T, 10 months earlier the law school suddenly withdrew a job offer to an applicant selected unanimously by the hiring committee. They did so 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. In response to Spiro raising Valentina 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.”

As the Globe and Mail reported, Spiro’s influence over the University of Toronto largely came from his family’s wealth. His uncle, Larry Tanenbaum, owner of the Toronto Raptors, financed the University’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies (Kuper is cross posted there.)

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 had given the University of Toronto at least $10 million and helped raise $10 million more. In May Larry and Judy Tanenbaum put up $20 million to U of T and Sinai Health to establish the Tanenbaum Institute for Science in Sport.

Their influence is magnified by ties to other pro-Israel donors. In 2019 CIJA founders Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman donated $100 million, which was the largest ever donation to the University of Toronto until that point. The famously Israeli nationalist Bronfman family also paid for a Chair in Israeli Studies while anti-Palestinian mining executive Peter Munk put up tens of millions of dollars to establish the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

It’s helpful to have numerous wealthy donors on your side. But the Israel lobby is also pushing against an open door. The Canadian Jewish News’ profile of University President Gertler suggests he’s an Israel supporter.

Among the university’s leadership and donor class Jews are overrepresented, not underrepresented. Ditto among TFOM faculty.

As Black and Indigenous – and to a lesser extent Latin American, South Asian and Arab – communities struggle for positions within the elite institution, many Jewish and politically Zionist faculty members complain that expressing solidarity with Palestinians discriminates against them. Their pressure led to the appointment of a Special Adviser on Anti-Semitism who published a spurious ‘report’, which outside groups amplified and the dominant media covered widely. This reflects power, not oppression.

But it also highlights Zionists losing control over the narrative. Apartheid apologists would have preferred not to employ a scorched earth policy but even at a generally conservative medical school voices are rising against apartheid.

They and many others shout: Free Palestine!

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