On December 13, Anthony Housefather, Member of Parliament (MP), collaborated with four other MPs in drafting a letter in response to the growing backlash against many Canadian universities’ support of Israeli policy.
The letter was posted on Housefather’s X account on December 14 and addresses 25 Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto. It cites an increase in “hostile environments for Jewish students” due to widespread disfavour of Israel and its war with Hamas. It also criticizes the universities for failing to support Jewish students, describing their inaction as “failing to support a safe sanctuary for Jewish students.”
The letter also outlined several questions that university administrators all over Canada will respond to by January 20. The questions include whether calls against the State of Israel constitute a violation of the university code of conduct, whether “proper policies” are in place to combat antisemitism, whether universities can commit to student associations and other student groups not being hostile to Jewish students, and whether Jewish faculty members are also being supported on campus environments.
Housefather pointed to the non-committal responses from top university officials in the US as a rationale behind the new line of questioning, referring to their conduct as “[embarrassing] themselves and their institutions” for their inaction against perceived antisemitism. The administrators mentioned by Housefather, speaking under oath in a congressional hearing on December 5, had refused to commit to tightening controls on academic freedom regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict, provoking fresh questions on the limits of freedom of speech within university campuses in the US.
In the aftermath of that hearing, University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill resigned over the backlash stemming from her comments on the issue of free speech and antisemitism, while Harvard University President Claudine Gay also resigned from her position on January 2 due to increased scrutiny of her academic record in the wake of her comments in the congressional hearing.
Housefather’s allusion to the US congressional hearing may represent an intention to bring similar pressure onto Canadian university administrators, thus pushing them to support new measures against anti-Israeli speech.
The University of Toronto Scarborough wing of Amnesty International (Amnesty International UTSC) has expressed deep concern over these questions regarding anti-Israeli speech as antisemitic. On December 17, the organization tweeted a reply in response to Housefather’s letter.
In the tweet, Amnesty International UTSC stated that if university administrators cave under pressure due to Housefather’s letter, they would be met with “the most unprecedented form of resistance” from the student body. They have also rejected the equivalence of anti-Israeli speech as antisemitic, inviting Jewish students and student groups to join their “resistance” against the possible pushback from Housefather’s letter.
Responses to Amnesty International UTSC ’s declaration have been polarizing. While many users supported their statement, others attacked Amnesty U of T for using inflammatory language. Many users repeated Housefather’s claims that attacking the policies of the Israeli state would constitute committing antisemitic threats.
In response, Amnesty International UTSC clarified that the “resistance” will be strictly non-violent. They have also clarified their zero tolerance of antisemitism. As of January 11, Amnesty International UTSC continues to publish content on X critiquing the Israeli state for its actions against Hamas, in defiance of Housefather’s letter.
Amnesty International UTSC’s allusions to the possibility that academic freedom and freedom of speech will be withheld from those with pro-Palestinian views are not without any merit.
On December 22, a report conducted by the CBC detailed many instances in which expressing pro-Palestinian opinions has led to severe consequences that range from censure to expulsion and termination. Universities have also begun their own campaigns which have stifled pro-Palestinian voices, with McGill revoking its name from a pro-Palestinian student group on December 19 and Humber College suspending and threatening arrest to a student on November 2, who had posted stickers calling out Israeli policy as analogous to apartheid.
Faculty have not been excused from this crackdown, with a medical resident from the University of Ottawa also suspended due to his criticisms of Israeli policy against Palestine on November 21.
As of January 11, neither Anthony Housefather nor any other co-author of the letter have responded to the concerns raised by Amnesty U of T.