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At McGill University in Montreal, a group called Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights celebrated the Hamas attacks on Israel as 'heroic.'Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

York University condemned what it described as an inflammatory statement from its student unions on the attack in Israel last Saturday and called on student leaders to reject acts of violence or discrimination against Jewish students.

It was the latest in a series of controversial statements by Canadian student groups that have provoked outrage. Administrators, mindful of a university’s role as a place of free expression and respectful debate, drew a line at the celebration of violence.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a source of campus strife for decades, and at times demonstrations have turned violent. It’s a conflict that hits close to home in Canada, where diasporas on all sides reside. Many see the issues at stake as existential threats.

After the attack by Hamas in Israel left more than 1,300 dead, and the start of an Israeli military response, many of the opinions that surfaced from student groups struck university administrators and some sections of the public as intemperate and offensive.

On Thursday, the York Federation of Students, Glendon College student union and the York Graduate Student Association announced their support for the Palestinian cause with a post that said “resistance against colonial violence is justified and necessary.”

The statement was particularly controversial since the associations represent all students, not just those who have signed up in support of the Palestinian cause.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather was among the many people who reacted on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter. He called on York to take immediate action, saying “the glorification of a murderous terrorist group that butchered innocent Israelis is vile.”

Hamas, Israel and the ‘yes, but’ squad

Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop called on the groups to retract the statement, adding that if they refuse, she expects York to “hold these groups accountable.”

The York administration issued an unequivocal condemnation of the message Friday, saying that freedom of expression has limits.

Several other student-group statements this week prompted outrage across the country.

At McGill University, a group called Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights celebrated the Hamas attacks on Israel as “heroic.” The group also said the attacks were the consequence of Israel’s actions and not an “unnecessary escalation.”

McGill provost Chris Manfredi responded in a campus-wide e-mail, calling the group’s message abhorrent and incendiary and antithetical to the university’s values. He said the student group is independent of the university administration and free to voice its opinions, but he had written to student leadership in an effort to revoke the group’s permission to use the university’s name.

At McMaster University, a CUPE local that represents teaching assistants, postdoctoral fellows and sessional faculty posted on social media that “Palestine is rising, long live the resistance.” The message was later deleted and the local leadership said it rejects the suggestion that the post condoned violence. The university said it was shocked and disappointed by the union’s public statements.

Many of these disputes echo confrontations occurring in the U.S., where a statement signed by several Harvard student groups has become a hot political issue attracting the attention of Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Canadian universities have also faced criticism for publishing vague statements on the crisis.

A group called the Network of Engaged Canadian Academics, which describes itself as dedicated to countering antisemitism, published an open letter that called the university statements “cookie-cutter.”

“Canadian university leaders must find a strong moral compass and use their rights of academic freedom to express what is just and what is evil,” the letter said.

Much of the conflict on campuses has so far been restricted to statements and counter-statements on social media and e-mail. But as the war advances, the possibility of face-to-face conflict will grow.

In years past, some demonstrations have turned violent. At Concordia in 2002, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (at that point, a former prime minister) was prevented from speaking, protesters and Netanyahu supporters clashed on the streets of Montreal. And at York in 2019, when a former Israeli soldier was invited to speak, the event broke down into verbal and physical confrontations.

Graham Carr, president of Concordia, said university leaders must continue to emphasize the importance of dialogue and debate.

“In moments like these, when passions are understandably and justifiably running very high, we need to remember that the role of a university is to convene reasonable, respectful conversations,” Mr. Carr said.

Mark Muhannad Ayyash, a political-science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said he hopes the coming weeks will allow universities and their students to examine the root causes of the conflict. Canadian universities often exclude Palestinian perspectives, particularly those that examine the crisis through the lens of settler colonialism, he said.

“Only by understanding these root causes can we start to move beyond the horrors we are witnessing this week, but which in fact have been happening for decades, disproportionately affecting Palestinians,” Prof. Ayyash said.

Rex Brynen, a political-science professor at McGill University who has studied the conflict for decades, said he convened a voluntary session for his students over Zoom to discuss the attacks this week. He said the discussion was thoughtful and sensitive.

Having taught more than 15,000 students in his career, he said, he can count on one hand the number of times a student has said something objectionable or intolerant in class. The vast majority of students are respectful and willing to listen to differing points of view, despite the occasional incendiary statement issued by a student group outside of class, he said.

“You just make it clear, we are here as scholars, we’re going to debate this, we’re not going to tolerate anything that’s dehumanizing or hurtful, we’re going to do this in a thoughtful way. Because the point is for us to all understand and better inform our views,” Prof. Brynen said.

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