Controversy fell upon the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto in 2022 as debate swirled between accusations of antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism. A confidential letter—addressed to Acting Dean Patricia Houston and signed by 45 Faculty members—claimed a recent Faculty event reinforced “anti-Palestinian racism.” When this confidential letter was leaked, Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA) wrote an open letter with more than 300 signatories against the leaked letter, calling it “an attack on Jewish faculty members and the Jewish community.”
45 Toronto Faculty Signed a Confidential Letter
45 University of Toronto faculty members signed a confidential letter addressed to Acting Dean Patricia Houston to share their views about the January 26, 2022 event titled “Diversity Dialogues – Professor Irwin Cotler on Contemporary Antisemitism,” hosted by the Office of Inclusion and Diversity at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
The letter reads that “given the atmosphere of increasing intolerance and the rise of ideologies of hate in our communities, [Holocaust Remembrance] was even more urgent [than usual]. Instead, this event, unfortunately, reinforced anti-Palestinian racism in a way that is consistent with a broader pattern of silencing and erasure of Palestinian voices.”
Below are the concerns the letter raised:
- The event undermined the University’s own Anti-Semitism Working Group (ASWG) agreements which included not adopting recently proposed definitions of anti-Semitism. This includes the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which has been criticized for “conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism” and has been used “to silence voices speaking out against anti-Palestinian racism.” The speaker at the event “focused centrally on lobbying for the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and repeatedly labeled criticism of Israel as examples of antisemitism.”
- The University allowed the event to be sponsored by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC), an organization which has “actively targeted colleagues of colour, [sending] a chilling message to other faculty and students.” For example, in May 2021, the FSWC and other special interest groups “harassed, intimidated, and defamed the Temerty Faculty of Medicine (TFOM) Social Justice, Anti-Oppression and Advocacy Theme Lead Dr. Ritika Goel and supported a letter that demanded her firing. Over 1,000 TFOM students launched a campaign of support for Dr. Ritika Goel in response.
- The letter references a “wider context of ongoing targeting and harassment of medical students and faculty who speak in support of Palestinian life and liberation.” This has included faculty and students receiving “calls into the office” to discuss anonymous complaints about their personal social media showing support for Palestinian human rights, despite their right to free expression.
DARA’s Response to the Leaked Letter
When the confidential letter was leaked, Doctors Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (DARA) wrote a letter in response and organized more than 300 Jewish University of Toronto faculty and students to sign their support. The letter reads: “The signatories of the other faculty members’ letter relied on antisemitic stereotypes and false statements to attack Professor Cotler and his presentation. It was an attack on Jewish faculty members and the Jewish community.”
Below are DARA’s responses to the original letter:
- DARA argued that the University has “not banned or prohibited” the discussion of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.
- DARA claimed the original letter portrays “Cotler’s defence [sic] of Jews as anti-Palestinian racism, thereby perpetuating an antisemitic tradition of accusing Jews who defend themselves as erasing the voices and suppressing the lives of others.”
- DARA accused the original letter of “representing this Holocaust Remembrance event as […] trivializing and demeaning the torment and industrialized murder of Jews in the Holocaust.”
- Finally, DARA found that the original letter relied on “antisemitic imagery” including:
- The reference to “special interest groups” perpetuating “the classic depiction of Jews as dominating and controlling.”
- “The non-Jewish signatories to the letter utilize the moral cover of a number of Jewish signatories to tell Jews what is antisemitic and what is not, thereby stripping Jews of their last line of existential defence [sic].”*
- The letter “dismiss[es] the grotesque antisemitism at a UN and NGO conference on racism where delegates witnessed the distribution of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and placards proclaiming, “If only Hitler had won.”*
Jewish Faculty Network Responds
Several months later, a new letter emerged. The Jewish Faculty Network, an organization of Jewish faculty in Canada who strive for social justice, wrote to “share [their] grave concerns and growing alarm about the ongoing campaign against colleagues at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine due to their legitimate criticism of the State of Israel.”
The letter continues, “We agree that real antisemitism must be dealt with seriously. We also urge you to continue upholding the academic freedom of our TFOM colleagues, including their protected right to legitimately criticize any state, including the State of Israel.”
All three letters are publicly available to read and consider the merits of each argument.
1. The original letter which claims anti-Palestinian racism
2. The response letter which claims antisemitism
3. The Jewish Faculty Network’s letter
The event itself was recorded and is also available to view at the following link:
“Diversity Dialogues – Professor Irwin Cotler on Contemporary Antisemitism”
*Does not appear in original letter.