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opinion

Once upon a time, antisemitism at the University of Toronto was straightforward.

The university’s faculty of medicine kept a tight lid on how many Jewish students were accepted, turning away highly qualified applicants for no other reason than they had filled in “Hebrew” on an application form demanding detailed religious information.

By the early 1960s, this institutionalized bigotry had come to an end. Flash forward to 2022.

In September, the Temerty Faculty of Medicine publicly apologized for that decades-long discrimination, building on a detailed investigation in 2021. From the outside, that looked like not just atonement, but progress.

But it turns out that antisemitism at the University of Toronto had just retreated to the shadows to regroup. Dr. Ayelet Kuper – who had been the medical faculty’s senior adviser on antisemitism – published a scathing report in the Canadian Medical Education Journal earlier this month that revealed a social environment rotten with antisemitism.

Her findings take place against a broad rise in hate in Canada. The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada show a sharp spike in 2020 in reported hate crimes, to the highest level on record. Antisemitism, Islamophobia, hate crimes against Indigenous people, attacks on racialized Canadians: all of those permutations of bigotry contribute to the disturbing trend.

In her report, Dr. Kuper recounts how a fellow faculty member refused to include antisemitism in an anti-racism course because that “might normalize the existence of a Jewish state in Israel.” Such a sentiment makes Jewish Canadians collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government; it is indisputably antisemitic.

The university acknowledges that Dr. Kuper’s report is accurate, and has decried those incidents as “completely unacceptable.”

The toxic environment at U of T is, sadly, anything but an isolated event. Antisemitism is bubbling up from the sewer across Canada, and elsewhere. The bizarre screeds of Ye (formerly Kanye West) are just one high-profile example.

There was the unsettling, and bizarre, episode over the summer with Laith Marouf, whose Community Media Advocacy Centre received $133,000 in federal funding from the Heritage Department. A supposed anti-racism lecturer, Mr. Marouf tweeted about “bags of human feces, aka the Jewish White Supremacists.”

In recent weeks, two events on Parliament Hill (one organized by a Liberal MP, the other by an NDP MP) included attendees with a history of demonstrably antisemitic comments. There were apologies and disavowals, to be sure. But Jewish Canadians, and everyone else, can ask: Why the seeming blind spot?

That is a pressing question with antisemitic acts on the rise. Incidents across Canada have surged since 2017, particularly during the pandemic, according to statistics from B’nai Brith. The group documented 2,799 such incidents in 2021, including 75 acts of violence. That represents almost an 80-per-cent jump in total incidents since 2017; violent incidents were nearly four times higher.

Looking to counter that worrying trend, B’nai Brith has urged the University of Toronto, among others, to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding definition of antisemitism. (Canada, several provinces and other institutions have adopted the IHRA definition, with Saskatchewan following suit on Monday.)

What would seem to be an obvious gesture has instead become a flashpoint, with some groups contending that adopting the definition would chill free speech, because it could discourage criticism of Israel and target supporters of Palestine.

Legitimate criticism of Israel’s actions should not be precluded, something the IHRA acknowledges. But it isn’t much of an intellectual feat to square vigorous condemnation of Israel with the avoidance of hateful antisemitic speech.

If a more widespread adoption of the IHRA definition makes some feel less latitude in minimizing the Holocaust, or in holding Jewish Canadians collectively responsible for the actions of Israel – then, good.

The University of Toronto’s medical faculty, and other public institutions in Canada, should adopt the IHRA definition. Solidarity, not mere expressions of sympathy, is needed.

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