Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The University of Toronto – The Institution where Israel Apartheid Week was Born

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review



The University of Toronto is one of the most highly regarded academic institutions in Canada. A coalition of anti-Israel groups initially used the university campus as a launching pad for what has become an annual series of events that take place in dozens of cities around the world. Protesters call for a one-state solution, crippling divestment from Israel, and heavy sanctions. Parallels are drawn between Israel and the Apartheid system as it existed in South Africa. Thus thousands of students are exposed to this campaign of disinformation.

The University of Toronto administration allows the event organizers to use campus facilities and has never taken action against the event, nor responded to the objections of Jewish human rights organizations and student groups that feel threatened when legitimate criticism turns into thinly veiled anti-Semitism. The Jewish community of Toronto, although highly organized, has failed to combat the campaign, and soft advocacy on behalf of Israel has merely led to the empowerment and continuation of this state of affairs.    

The annual Israel Apartheid Week[1] (IAW) touts itself as an international series of events. Its origins can be traced back to the University of Toronto (U of T) in 2004, when student groups sympathetic to the Palestinian cause sought to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel. By early 2005, the university’s Arab Students Collective (ASC) had initiated its first annual event. Authorized by the University of Toronto administration, IAW has since developed into an annual international occurrence targeting Israel and Zionists with malevolent and grossly misrepresentative accusations. The ASC has been joined by a variety of planning partners, including the Coalition Against Israel Apartheid, and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights.

As the chief mouthpiece for anti-Zionism in the university world, the organizers of IAW seek to shape the opinions of future leaders of Western society and industry by distributing information which portrays Israel as an undemocratic state that tramples on the rights of its own citizens and disrupts the lives of its neighbors. Israel is presented as an illegal occupier of land, and a failed experiment in Jewish nationhood which must be terminated. The organizers strive to encourage a global campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the Jewish state.

The University’s Stance

The University of Toronto’s early and largely unchanged approach to IAW can be found in the Vice-Provost’s Students’ Report (2004-05), as presented to the University Affairs Board. The key statement in the article upholds IAW’s right to operate on campus:

Upon review of the group’s plans, the administration determined that it had no reason to believe that the events would exceed the boundaries for free speech as articulated in the Statement on Freedom of Speech and other relevant University policies. Furthermore, the administration continues to believe that is critically important for the University to uphold the fundamental principles of open dialogue and tolerance within its community. The ability to question, examine and comment on issues of the day, even when such commentary may be repugnant to some, is central to the mission of the University.[2]

The Statement on Freedom of Speech[3] mentioned in the report is a University publication issued in 1992. It provides a comprehensive outline of acceptable and unacceptable expression on campus. It continues to be implemented by the University. In a more recent pronouncement regarding freedom of speech on campus, University President David Naylor addressed the issue in February 2006, when a statement was published on the President’s website a week before that year’s IAW events. He reiterated that “the university is very deeply committed to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”[4] The President ensured that it was known that:

…all members of our community are bound by the Criminal Code of Canada as regards hate crimes and by provincial law as regards human rights, and they are expected to respect our policies as they relate to the maintenance of an environment that is inclusive and that is free of discrimination and harassment on the basis of individual attributes such as religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation or gender identity.[5]

In referring to “matters of political sensitivity”, the President recognized that

To the extent that these events have engendered debate in the context of strongly held and widely divergent views, they have also reflected the fundamental social role of the University of Toronto.Our openness to such activities reflects our institutional commitment to freedom of speech, a fundamental freedom that has been earned through many generations of struggle and sacrifice, and repeatedly championed by universities in democratic societies.[6]

In a statement released one month later, President Naylor repeated some of these points, and went so far as to add that situations in which individuals are targeted on the basis on their identity, even though not qualifying as  an actual hate crime, cause the university “grave concern.”[7]

In 2007, the University organized meetings between the largest Jewish and Muslim student groups, Hillel and the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), respectively. One such meeting was on February 9th. It was facilitated by Nouman Ashraf, the University’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Officer, as well as by Rob Steiner and Jim Delaney from the Administration’s Department for Student Affairs. The meeting was called to discuss matters concerning the upcoming Israel Apartheid Week.

Meetings such as these were defined as ‘temperature checks’ by Delaney; and were an effort on the part of  the administration to express concerns and attempt to foster warmer relations and cooperation between the organized Jewish and Muslim student groups. The MSA was not organizationally involved in IAW events, and their presence was requested for the purpose of maintaining a working relationship with Hillel. As congenial as the meetings were, nothing was done to prevent that month’s Israel Apartheid Week from unfolding as planned.

Reactions to the University’s Stance

Condemnations of the University’s stance have come from many directions. In 2007, the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies sent a letter of protest to President David Naylor after having monitored the IAW events on campus.[8] In a press release dated March 2008, it described Toronto’s IAW as a “blatantly anti-Semitic event”.[9] The organization published an open letter of protest in a national Canadian newspaper that also printed the University’s defense of its position a few days later.[10]

Hillel, the largest Jewish campus group at the University of Toronto, published a press release in 2007 addressing the concerns of students on campus. It expressed alarm that:

The extremist nature of this week does nothing to promote dialogue, cultural understanding, and campus unity.  Rather it only serves to promote hatred and intolerance. While we are committed to freedom of speech on campus, we feel this inflammatory week of programs imposes a toxic environment on all students.[11]

Hillel sought to distance itself from the heat of debate on campus in its annual IsraelFest, a week-long celebration which focuses on Israeli culture rather than the Israel-Palestinian conflict. IsraelFest predates IAW, and the first incarnation of IAW was designed to conflict with this event. In what is now an annual occurrence, both events vie for student attention within a week of each other every February.

Another Jewish campus group at the University of Toronto – Betar-Tagar now known as ‘Zionists at U of T’ – took a different approach. In 2006, in conjunction with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, it launched ‘Know Radical Islam Week’ to call attention to the human rights violations perpetrated by radical Islamic regimes.[12] This event elicited a great deal of controversy, but was carefully monitored and proceeded smoothly. It featured civil rights activist Nonie Darwish, former Sudanese Jihadist slave Simon Deng, and representatives from interfaith think tanks and advocacy organizations.

In March 2008, an open letter of protest against Israel Apartheid Week was signed by 125 U of T professors and published in Canada’s National Post newspaper. The professors, from various faculties, labeled the event as “hateful and divisive”, and asked the administration to withdraw its support for the event. A similar letter signed by seventy professors had appeared the year before.[13]

Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker, described IAW as “crude propagandism, pure hypocrisy and a cynical manipulation of the student body” during a speech at the University of Ottawa in February 2008.[14] The Anti-Defamation League took a more conservative approach, outlining and documenting international IAW events within the framework of the Nakba commemoration, without criticizing the events outright.[15] Rather, they sought to put anti-Israel rhetoric on display and allow others to draw conclusions.

The Inadequacy of the Organized Jewish Community’s Response

The response of the organized Toronto Jewish community was and continues to be inadequate because it is not unified. A variety of organizations have taken vastly different approaches to IAW, diluting the influence and clout of what could be a strong solitary response. Protest letters, angry internet posts, op-ed pieces, and full blown protest campaigns compete with one other.

Shaun Hoffman, a former Vice-President and Israel Affairs chair at Hillel at the U of T (2006-07), does not believe that the community organizations have reacted appropriately in dealing with IAW. His feeling is that “there was much pressure placed on the students and staff of Hillel by the Jewish community to successfully combat IAW, though assistance from community organizations was either of no help, or not coming at all.”[16]

This stands in stark contrast to the organization and teamwork of the twenty-five groups that organized IAW at Toronto universities in 2008 (including the University of Toronto, York University and Ryerson University).[17] At U of T, this included at least six groups. The disparate approach by pro-Israel groups has been recognized by those seeking to combat IAW, and efforts are underway to formulate a united approach. However, some organizations that consider themselves Zionist do not approach IAW with any desire to counter it at all.

Hillel at the University of Toronto has a key influence on Jewish campus life. The local Jewish Federation, United Jewish Appeal (UJA) which is the principal financial benefactor of Hillel, permits a non-confrontational non-approach to the annual event. Hillel does not actively respond to accusations against Israel, or to the protests on campus. Instead, the campus group creates feel-good programming about Israel which, while obviously important, does not directly address the dissemination of misinformation on campus which directly target Israel. In speaking to The Canadian Jewish News, a Hillel of Greater Toronto representative stated that “we feel that it is more effective to focus on the 90 per cent of students who are not interested in politicized events and want to come together to find a common ground for dialogue.”[18]

Hoffman shed some light on this representative’s position by explaining that:

Organizations such as the UJA Federation do not possess the mechanisms through which to deal with campus advocacy. Smaller and advocacy- specific organizations such as Stand With Us either offer a decisive message and stance which does not fit into the Hillel pluralistic framework, or offer a one-size-fits-all message and style of advocacy that is for the most part ineffective and/or irrelevant on a campus like U of T.[19]

As a Jewish campus group, Hillel at the University of Toronto puts a considerable amount of money into funding educational programs about Israel. Students can take part in seminars and Israel advocacy training. Yet this training has not been put into action against IAW with official Hillel approval. Hoffman reasons that:

Hillel, the organization which is best equipped to offer a decisive response to IAW in terms of resources and manpower, is ultimately handcuffed by a pluralistic maxim inextricably linked to the organization.  The result is a type of super-soft advocacy that offers no real counter to the allegations leveled during IAW.[20]

Hillel at the University of Toronto operates under the umbrella of Hillel of Greater Toronto, a non-profit organization run by non-student staff that influences and shapes programming in individual Toronto Hillel chapters. In the past, Hillel student leaders have had to alter their response to IAW to fall in line with the philosophy of the parent organization. This is a common occurrence in North America: philanthropy fuelled Jewish communal non-profit organizations have their say on the type of programming offered by their student group beneficiaries.

The University’s Failure

The University administration must contend annually with heavy criticism and letters of protest. The school seeks to uphold what it believes to be the ideal form of free speech. It genuinely believes that there are no grounds for sanction, and the messages expressed by IAW cannot be completely condemned. The President’s staff meets with students from Jewish and Muslim groups, seeking to assuage any possible tension. The University takes pains to explain and present its perspective. Yet Israel is singled out for unbalanced criticism and held to a different standard than any other nation. Students are exposed to messages of hatred and contempt for the Jewish state, demonized when walking to class while calls for a one -state solution are spewed from university- authorized booths in public areas. By not prohibiting IAW on campus, the University administration’s inaction is a conscious decision which negatively impacts life on campus for all students. More importantly, it conflicts with the 2004 European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC)’s working definition of anti-Semitism – one that is frequently used – which includes such examples of anti-Semitism as:

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor).
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.[21]

The University claims that it monitors all IAW events in order to ensure compliance with university policies. One example of this policy is the aforementioned Statement on Freedom of Speech. It declares that “the values of mutual respect and civility may, on occasion, be superseded by the need to protect lawful freedom of speech.” It also advocates the right of students to “debate and to engage in peaceful assemblies and demonstrations.”[22]

Lawful freedom of speech was violated in 2005 when what was purported to be a peaceful demonstration defied Canadian federal law. A mock refugee camp constructed in the school’s Sydney Smith Hall foyer was adorned with Arabic language posters calling on camp residents to support or join the terror group Islamic Jihad.[23] This group was banned by the government of Canada in November of 2002.[24] According to Canada’s criminal code, Section 2, section 1, sub-section 83.21, it is an offence to engage in an activity for the benefit of a terrorist group. Championing the group using official promotional material can be easily interpreted as a violation of this law. The Criminal Code of Canada reads

Every person who knowingly instructs, directly or indirectly, any person to carry out any activity for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with a terrorist group, for the purpose of enhancing the ability of any terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life.

(2) An offence may be committed under subsection (1) whether or not

(a) the activity that the accused instructs to be carried out is actually carried out;[25]

By indirectly encouraging students to carry out activities for the benefit of Islamic Jihad by displaying lifelike Islamic Jihad recruitment posters on campus, it is possible that the organizers of IAW may have been in direct violation of federal law. They have yet to be taken to task for this act. Instead, they are permitted to return to campus every year to continue promoting their agenda.

When President David Naylor of U of T was pushed several months ago to respond to an open letter in a national newspaper with one of his own, he wrote that “The University does not sponsor, organize, or even implicitly endorse these events.”[26]

By distancing the University from the annual event, President Naylor seeks to rid the school of any sense of culpability. In the face of anti-Israel hatemongering, in which IAW organizers call for the dissolution of the Jewish state, and in which terrorism against civilians is considered legitimate ‘resistance’, the university’s stance is indeed one of endorsement. Writing in the National Post newspaper, George Jonas remarked, “So U of T only provides a roof and a postal code for a blatantly racist event… It’s just that U of T doesn’t sponsor it.”[27] In declaring neutrality, but allowing the event on campus, the university makes a choice to indirectly support the event.

In 2006, as anti-Israel actions on campus continued to mature and strengthen, the Students Against Israel Apartheid (SAIA) at U of T chose to host a self-described ‘snake march’ through campus.[28] Having received word that the group would march past the campus Hillel building, the University accepted a request for some campus police officers to be stationed there. In selecting a Jewish institution on campus, the organizers sought to intimidate student supporters of Israel. The university allowed the group to initiate the event, and provided security. Thus by playing both sides, the university sought some semblance of neutrality.

In February 2008, as part of IAW, the University of Toronto provided a venue for a new event entitled ‘Founding Conference: High Schools Against Israeli Apartheid (HAIA).’ At this particular conference, organizers only granted entry to high school students. This constitutes a new effort by IAW organizers to indoctrinate a new generation of anti-Israel activists just as the first wave of students exposed to IAW graduate. This is the type of well-organized effort the disorganized pro-Israel community can only dream of achieving.

Israel Apartheid Week Evolves

In recent years, attacks directed at Israel on campus have become more blatant. While in the past, protests have slammed the Jewish state for perceived violations of human rights, organizers now take their argument further. They push brazenly for a one-state solution in which rather than granting the Palestinians their own democratic state alongside Israel, they advocate  the termination of the Jewish state, and the founding of yet another Muslim state in the Middle East, based on ‘right of return’ for the descendants of original Palestinian refugees. This orientation has influenced the rhetoric employed by IAW representatives, which was on full display in February 2008.

In 2008, a former resident of Toronto, Staff Sgt. David Vain[29] of Israel’s Armored Corps made a stop at the University of Toronto’s Sydney Smith hall to debate the representatives of IAW. Members of the Coalition Against Israel Apartheid (CAIA) were manning the booth, operating under the umbrella IAW banner. The debate was civil, yet heated and Vain was well- versed in the arguments being presented, unlike the hundreds (if not thousands) of people that stream through the Sydney Smith foyer. This took place shortly after the 4 February 2008 suicide bombing in Dimona, and Vain was shocked to hear the act of murder described as legitimate ‘resistance’.

Soon after revealing his identity as an Israeli soldier, Vain was labeled a ‘terrorist’ and ‘war criminal’ by those present at the IAW booth and the tension grew palpably.[30] This incident is illustrative of the inversion and manipulation of reality employed by the IAW organizers. The University, a public institution supported in part by the taxpayer, stands by and permits disinformation to be spread under the cover of tolerant free speech. There is less a sense of accountability, and rather a desire to let the week pass.

On 2 May 2008 Member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury Board, rose in Canada’s House of Commons and lamented the fact that “Unfortunately here at home, radical left-wing groups are targeting the Jewish state.” He further stated that “Radical left-wing groups on campuses have been holding Israel apartheid weeks and intimidating Jewish students.”[31]Although members of the Canadian government and Jewish human rights organizations such as the ADL and Bnai Brith have recognized the menace presented by IAW, the event continues.

Israel Apartheid Week has now become a regular event at the University of Toronto. Jewish students know it is February when flyers featuring abrasive illustrations appear all over campus advertising a bevy of anti-Israel demonstrations and speakers, including Ward Churchill (who has called 9/11 victims ‘little Eichmanns’)[32], Ahmed Motiar (who has denied that Muslims were involved in the 9/11 bombings)[33], and Jaggi Singh (a pro-Palestinian who has been arrested numerous times in the past[34], [35]).

Even though speakers on its campus deny Israel its right to exist and accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing are tossed about, the University of Toronto continues to give the organizers a venue and thereby a platform for this continued abuse of freedom of speech. This is likely to be a sore point in years to come, when the university looks back and wonders how it could have misjudged so badly.

This is the case now when the administration recalls how females were banned from the Hart House student center until 1973. This is also the case when the administration remembers the medical school’s Jewish quota system which was enforced until the 1960s.[36]  Eventually the permissive approach to Israel Apartheid Week will stand as another example of a failed policy within the University’s history – a failure which launched a hate event that has since spread to campuses worldwide. By permitting anti-Semitic activities, as defined by the EUMC, to occur on an annual basis, the University could be construed as providing a safe haven for hate speech. If criticism of Israel were anti-Semitic, many Israeli news outlets would be under indictment. But some provocations go beyond the pale. This is what occurs at the University of Toronto.

*     *     *


*The author wishes to acknowledge the kind help and advice of Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld and Dr. Mikael Tossavainen of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; Shaun Hoffman, Noam Gilboord and Joey Lightstone.

[1] Sometimes referred to as ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’.

[2] Office of the Vice-Provost, University of Toronto. “University Affairs Board 2004-05 Vice Provost Students’ Report #3 (Item 4)”.

[3] Office of the Governing Council, University of Toronto. Statement on Freedom of Speech. 28 May 1992. (Accessed 1 July 2008)

[4] Office of the President, University of Toronto. “Freedom of Expression – Rights with Responsibilities:

President’s statement on freedom of speech on campus”. 7 February 2006. (Accessed 3 July 2008)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Office of the President, University of Toronto. “Presidential Statement to Governing Council regarding concerns about racist and offensive incidences on campus”. 23 March 2006. (Accessed 1 July 2008)

[8] Josh Hacker, “Friends Respond to so called ‘Israel Apartheid Week’,” The Wiesenthal Insider, Spring 2007. (Accessed 1 July 2008)

[9]Author Unknown. Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center Commends University of Toronto Faculty for Taking a Stand Against Israel Apartheid Week”. 22 March 2008. (Accessed 2 July 2008)

[10] National Post, 27 February 2008, A16 (Reproduction available at

[11] Hillel at the University of Toronto, Hillel Press Release. 2007.

[12] Brodie Fenlon. “U of T Conference Stirs Up Muslims,” Toronto Sun, 7 February 2006. (Accessed 29 June 2008)

[13] Abe Selig, “Canadian Professors Slam Israel Apartheid Week,” Jerusalem Post, 2 April 2008. (Accessed 16 June 2008)

[14] Sheri Shefa, “Jewish groups work to counter Israeli Apartheid Week,” The Canadian Jewish News, 14 February 2008. (Accessed 20 June 2008)

[15] “The “Nakba”: A Driving Force Behind U.S. Anti-Israel Activity in 2008,” Anti-Defamation League, 3 June 2008. (Accessed 14 June 2008)

[16] All Shaun Hoffman quotes are from an interview conducted by the author on 6 June 2008.

[17] “Toronto,” Israeli Apartheid Week. (Accessed 10 June 2008)

[18] Sheri Shefa, “Israel Apartheid Week Gains Momentum,” The Canadian Jewish News, 7 February 2008. (Accessed 10 June 2008)

[19] All Shaun Hoffman quotes are from an interview conducted by the author on 6 June 2008.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Working Definition’ of Anti-Semitism,” US Dept. of State, 8 February 2007. (Accessed 28 May 2008)

[22] Office of the Governing Council, University of Toronto. Statement on Freedom of Speech, 28 May  1992. (Accessed 1 July 2008)

[23] As witnessed by the author, among others.

[24] “Canada and Terrorism,” Anti-Defamation League, January 2004. (Accessed 28 June 2008)

[25] “Criminal Code: Part II. i. 83.21,” Canadian Legal Information Institute, 2001, (Accessed 29 June 2008)

[26] National Post, A16, 27 February 2008.

[27] George Jonas. “Reading Between the Freely Spoken Lines,” National Post, 15 February 2008, (Accessed 20 June 2008)

[28] “Student Day of Action,” The Ontario Public Interest Research Group, 16 November  2006.§ion=4&subsection=14&type=3. (Accessed 28 June 2008)

[29] Name has been changed on request of soldier, due to privacy concerns.

[30] Derived from conversations between the author and Staff Sgt. Vain.

[31] 39th Parliament session (Canada) Friday, 2 May 2008. (Accessed 25 June 2008)

[32] Ward Churchill, Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, 2005. (Accessed 1 July 2008)

[33] Stewart Bell, “The sound and the fury of ethnic outreach,” National Post. 17 February 2007. (Accessed 1 July 2008)

[34] “Jaggi Singh Arrested in Jerusalem,” Catholic New Times, 2003. (Accessed 21 July 2008)

[35] “Montreal activist Jaggi Singh granted bail again,” CBC News, 2006. (Accessed 21 July 2008)

[36] Charles Levi, “75 Things You Didn’t Know About U of T,” University of Toronto Magazine, 2002. (Accessed 3 July 2008)

*     *     *

AVI WEINRYB is a graduate of the University of Toronto (BA Hons, 2007) where he received the ‘Samuel James Stubbs Award’ for academic achievement. Avi served as a Hillel Vice-President and Chair of the Arts and Culture committee at the University of Toronto for two years. He recently accepted a full-time position at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Toronto. His essay in this volume was written during an internship as research assistant at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.