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Court’s dismissal of University of Toronto anti-Semitism case is a slap in the face

Court’s dismissal of University of Toronto anti-Semitism case is a slap in the face

Court’s dismissal of University of Toronto anti-Semitism case is a slap in the face

The verdict was a victory for the University of Toronto’s property rights, but a terrible and unprecedented legal loss for Canadian Jews.

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Despite being one of its biggest supporters, the Jewish community often finds itself on the losing end when it comes to the University of Toronto. For two decades, we have fought the university’s decision to allow Israeli Apartheid Week events to take place on campus, which has fostered generations of anti-Semites and normalized anti-Israel sentiment on campus, including among some faculty and administrators.

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The university has opposed the Jewish community at every turn, including by hosting radical speakers who promoted the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel and accused the Jewish state of every imaginable falsehood. When it came time to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, a committee appointed by the administration rejected it.

The situation was aggravated by the camp set up by Hamas supporters, who demanded that the university divest from any Israel-related investments and cut its ties with the only Jewish state. These supporters, hiding behind the guise of freedom of speech, boldly demanded that the school cut its ties with Israeli academics and universities. Worse still, they banned pro-Zionist students and professors from entering their camp (on university property) and plastered the fence with slogans promoting violence and targeting Israel.

The final straw came this week, however, when Ontario Superior Court Justice Markus Koehnen dismissed Jewish community concerns about anti-Semitism. Many interlocutors were quick to applaud the order to dismantle the camp, failing to understand the harm it caused. The verdict was a victory for the University of Toronto’s property rights, but a terrible and unprecedented legal loss for the Jewish community.

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In his judgment, Judge Koehnen admitted that “there is no doubt that some of the speech outside the camp rises to the level of hate speech.” Among many examples, he cited comments such as “We need another Holocaust,” “Death to Jews, Hamas as Prime Minister,” and “Dirty fucking Jew. Go back to Europe.” Despite the camp encouraging such hate speech, the judge struck a more sympathetic tone towards those occupying it, stating that “none of the named respondents nor any of the camp occupants have been associated with any of these statements.”

Judge Koehnen said the “knee-jerk conclusion that those phrases are anti-Semitic is not justified.” He appeared to dismiss key anti-Semitic indicators, including “a photograph of the university president (who is Jewish), which was described as depicting the president as a devil with the caption ‘blood on your hands’ in bold letters below it,” the “inverted triangle” that Hamas uses to mark its targets, along with the phrases “intifada,” “free Palestine by any means necessary,” and “from the river to the sea,” which is often condemned as a call for genocide of the Jewish people.

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It is important to exemplify how outrageous and damaging the ruling is, so that we have better representation going forward. Judge Koehnen wrote: “There was considerable debate on the record about the use of certain slogans such as ‘from the river to the sea,’ ‘glory to the martyrs,’ and the word ‘intifada.’ Several intervenors asked me to find these phrases to be anti-Semitic. I accept that these expressions are perceived as hurtful and threatening to many Jews. However, there appears to be considerable variation, nuance, and context around the meaning of these terms that, in my view, would make it incorrect to automatically assume that they are anti-Semitic, especially in an interlocutory motion.”

Judge Koehnen wrongly assumed that part of the problem “arises from the absence of an agreed-upon definition of antisemitism.” He justified part of this assessment by stating that the university itself refused to adopt definitions proposed by some organizations, namely the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, the most widely accepted definition on the planet. Had the university not embarrassed the Jewish community, Judge Koehnen’s reasoning might have been different.

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Given that Jews face a disproportionate amount of hate, the way this ruling dismissed allegations of anti-Semitism is deeply troubling. After this debacle, what our community needs is more and better legal representation. The only thing standing against anti-Semitism in Canada is the rule of law and trained lawyers and prosecutors who will pursue cases against flagrant offenders who abuse the right to protest by using hate speech, threatening others, and vandalizing places of worship.

National mail

Avi Benlolo is the founder and executive director of the Abraham Initiative for Global Peace. Jerry S. Grafstein is a retired lawyer and former Canadian senator.

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