We are writing this statement to offer a student perspective on the recent events at York University, specifically the formation of the President’s Advisory Committee on Inclusion and President Mamdouh Shoukri’s subsequent statements to The CJN.
Under President Shoukri’s near-decade-long tenure, the university administration has demonstrated alarming apathy in the face of rampant anti-Semitism. The use of the word apathy is deliberate — there have been countless actionable anti-Semitic incidents brought to the administration’s attention. These incidents have been either downplayed or addressed with the same condescension and arrogance apparent in Shoukri’s latest comments.
In response to many Jewish students feeling unsafe on campus, Shoukri says:
The emotional aspects of an issue may affect some students and can make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This is understandable, as many of our students are the first in their families to attend university, and for others this may be the first time they have experienced the diversity of opinions that is typical of a vibrant academic environment.
This is a convenient and patronizing narrative, one which depicts Jewish students as coddled, ideologically inflexible, and intolerant of opposing viewpoints. Not only do comments like these serve to shift the burden of responsibility onto Jewish students and away from the perpetrators of anti-Semitism, but they are entirely dislodged from reality.
When Jewish students are barricaded in the Hillel offices amidst cries of “Die, Jew”, is this typical of a “vibrant academic environment?” Is it typical of a vibrant academic environment for Jewish students to fear displaying overt signs of their faith, such as Star of David necklaces or kippahs? Is it typical of a vibrant academic environment for a Jewish student to be spat on because she was carrying pro- Israel pamphlets? Is it typical of a vibrant academic environment for the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) club to hang posters around campus with the pictures and names of Jewish students who spoke out against the student government – and then for a near-identical campaign of intimidation to be carried out by the very same actors in the fall of 2015?
When Shoukri suggests that an underexposure to a “diversity of opinions” is the reason for Jewish students’ discomfort, it must be made patently clear that this is not in response to Jewish students making a request for all criticism of Israel to be removed from campus or for certain political opinions to be censored. It is in response to Jewish students complaining to Shoukri about events like the ones listed above.
Shoukri also has perverse ideas about the root cause of Jewish students’ consternation. Jewish students repeatedly tell the administration that they feel victimized by groups like SAIA and the York Federation of Students. Incredibly, Shoukri refrains from criticizing those organizations, choosing instead to place the blame on Jewish organizations. He accuses the Jewish groups of having a “negative effect on some of our young students and … contribut[ing] to making them feel worried and victimized” and advises them to change their approach lest they cause “inadvertent damage” to Jewish students. Shoukri’s gauge of the issue is insulting and demeaning.
In social justice, it is the place of the minority group to codify and define the group hatred directed at them, and not the place of the university administration or any other group to do so. When Jewish students identify something as anti-Semitic, it is inappropriate for Shoukri to render a judgement on the ‘real’ cause of their victimization — as if there is any sort of moral equivalency between the Jewish organizations that advocate for the end of the anti-Semitism on campus and the groups that perpetrate it. Moreover, Shoukri has never told black students that organizations which advocate for black rights are contributing to their victimization nor has he ever advised Muslim organizations to change their approach lest they cause inadvertent damage to Muslim students.
To our knowledge, the only form of racism against a minority group that Shoukri feels entitled to define is that which is perpetrated against the Jews.
Shoukri’s condescension is further apparent by the manner in which he brushes aside Jewish students’ concerns about the composition of the Advisory Committee on inclusion. Although the committee is tasked with ensuring “that all voices are heard,” it includes several members who endorse an academic and cultural boycott of Israel and explicitly advocate for the exclusion of hundreds of York students on the basis of their nationality.
For example, committee member John Greyson was one of the chief organizers of a boycott of the Tel Aviv University student film festival.
Most importantly, Shoukri’s conduct during a preliminary meeting with Jewish students on the topic of inclusion — which many signatories of this letter attended — was concerning. Firstly, Shoukri ridiculed the contributions of a prominent Jewish donor to York University and crassly claimed that the withdrawn funding could be supplanted by a “Jewish lawyer.” Secondly, Shoukri dismissed a written student account of experienced anti-Semitism at York University as “propaganda”. Thirdly, Shoukri belittled Jewish students who expressed concern over perceived anti-Semitic material being taught in some York classrooms. The flippancy with which Shoukri handled the personal accounts of anti-Semitic experiences renders his claim that York is a “safe space for all students” void of actual meaning for Jewish students.
We students no longer have confidence that the administration is operating in good faith. York University is stuck in a vicious cycle – one of latent anti-Semitism which occasionally bubbles to the surface with an incident that is too dramatic to ignore (e.g. the infamous barricade of the Hillel offices or the mural controversy and ensuing donor withdrawal).
These notable incidents garner significant media attention and the university promises change. The administration forms committees (the Task Force on Student Life, Learning & Community in 2009 and the President’s Advisory Committee on Inclusion in 2016), recycles vapid press releases (2009:“this task force will…explore ways that we can promote open debate and the free exchange of ideas”; 2016: “the [committee] will lead the University in examining effective ways for strengthening York’s commitment to building an inclusive and diverse campus that nurtures the respectful exchange of ideas”), and ultimately nothing is done.
It is long past time that this cycle be broken. We hope that the new president of York University does more to address these problems than their predecessor.
Israel Student Association at York
Hasbara at York
Originally published in Canadian Jewish News.