Ontario Premier Doug Ford has expressed disappointment with York University for allowing a protest that targeted guest speakers from the Israeli Defense Forces.
A crowd of protesters gathered outside a campus event held on Wednesday evening at York’s Vari Hall. The event was hosted by Herut Canada, a York student club, and featured reservist members of the Israeli military who were there to discuss their experiences. Protesters gathered outside and shouted pro-Palestinian slogans. There were some verbal and physical confrontations. Videos showed pushing and shoving and protesters being grabbed inside the lecture theatre. In some cases, police had to step in to separate protesters from members of the audience.
A group called Students Against Israeli Apartheid earlier in the day had posted a call for protests on social media, and described Wednesday’s event a “shameful moment” for York.
“I am disappointed that York University allowed for a hate-filled protest to take place last night,” Mr. Ford said on Twitter. “I was shocked by the vile hatred that was on display. ... I have been clear that there is no place in Ontario for racism and hatred. My caucus and I stand with the students at York University who had to endure this.”
Mr. Ford has cast himself as a champion of free speech on university campuses. Shortly after taking office, he ordered universities and colleges to produce statements guaranteeing free speech, which was criticized as an unnecessary intervention. Among the requirements outlined by the government was that universities should not shield students from ideas they disagree with or find offensive.
York University president Rhonda Lenton said in a statement that she was deeply disappointed with the behaviour on display. Dr. Lenton said the university recognizes free speech is not without limits and will review the events surrounding the protest. A working group on freedom of speech will be asked to devise plans to create a more respectful atmosphere for the debate of difficult issues on campus.
“In democratic societies, universities play a central role in facilitating debate on difficult issues. Shouting, threats of violence and attempts to intimidate community members are not consistent with the responsibilities we all share,” Dr. Lenton said. “The fact that external groups were on campus last night for the sole purpose of fomenting conflict should be especially disturbing to everyone at York.”
Dr. Lenton said that tension was high and the two opposing groups were at some points very close to one another. Toronto police and York security were on the scene.
One person was injured, according to police, and there were no arrests. A small number of people were removed from the property under the trespassing act and later released.
Free speech on campus has become a hot-button issue in recent years. An evaluation this month found that all Ontario postsecondary institutions had complied with the government’s call for free-speech policies.
Several events featuring controversial speakers have been cancelled on Canadian campuses in recent years. The event at York proceeded despite the interruptions.
“The Premier will always stand up for free speech, but he will not stand for hate-filled violence deliberately targeting a religious or racial minority group,” Mr. Ford’s spokeswoman said.
A statement issued by Friends of the Simon Weisenthal Centre denounced the protest, calling it a “mob,” and called on Dr. Lenton, Mr. Ford and Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano to take action.
“We are urging these leaders to take immediate steps regarding the environment that York University has created over the years that has led to what can only be described as an antisemitic, violent, racist mob sentiment toward Jewish students on this campus,” the group’s chief executive officer, Avi Benlolo, said in a statement.
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