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Jewish students say they don't feel safe, as MPs probe antisemitism at universities

OTTAWA — Jewish students on major university campuses are being forced to hide their Jewish identity and fear for their safety, as they face a tide of antisemitism, which school administrators are failing to protect them from, a group of students sai
McGill University student Claire Frankel speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre (NPT) in the Parliamentary Precinct in Ottawa, on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

OTTAWA — Jewish students on major university campuses are being forced to hide their Jewish identity and fear for their safety, as they face a tide of antisemitism, which school administrators are failing to protect them from, a group of students said Wednesday. 

Six students from schools in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta appeared on Parliament Hill to raise the alarm about a rise in antisemitism on their campuses which was triggered by the Israel-Hamas war. 

They spoke with several Liberal MPs including Anthony Housefather, who helped initiate a parliamentary committee study about antisemitism on campuses scheduled to begin Thursday, which was supported by all parties. 

"My friends who used to wear kippot on campus instead now wear baseball caps," said Nati Pressman, founder of the Canadian Union of Jewish Students. 

"This is not because we are any less proud to be Jewish, but because our universities have fostered and create an environment where being openly Jewish could be a threat to our physical and emotional safety." 

Many say they are experiencing a dramatic rise in antisemitic behaviour since Oct. 7. 

That day, Hamas militants launched an attack on southern Israel, killing 1,200 Israeli civilians and military members. The retaliatory siege, bombardments and ground attacks in the Gaza Strip have left more than 30,000 Palestinians dead, health officials in the region said. 

Students and pro-Palestinian activists have recently set up encampments at some Canadian universities — including McGill University, the University of Toronto, University of Ottawa and University of British Columbia — to protest Israel's war against Hamas. 

Administrators and Jewish leaders have raised concerns about antisemitic chants and slogans being featured at the protests and said hate will not be tolerated. 

Claire Frankel, a student at McGill, says she has heard slogans that "dehumanize Jews," but believes many students are demonstrating "for the right reasons" and want to see a lasting peace.

"Chants heard throughout this past school year and at the encampment at McGill include, 'All Zionists are racist,' 'All Zionists are terrorists,' 'There's only one solution, intifada revolution' and 'Leave Palestine alone and go back to Europe,'" she said.

On a recent walk to class Frankel said she saw a sign that read, "No Zionists are welcome."

Intifada, which means "shaking off" in Arabic, was coined to describe an uprising against Israel’s military occupation that erupted in 1987. What became known as the first intifada was marked by widespread Palestinian protests and a fierce Israeli response. 

In the second uprising, which began in 2000, Palestinian militants carried out deadly suicide bombings on buses and at restaurants and hotels, eliciting crushing Israeli military reprisals.

Yos Tarshish directs the Queen's University chapter of a national Jewish organization, and says while much of the conversation around the rise in antisemitism is focused on how universities should respond, he questions the role of bystanders. 

"Where are average, individual, daily, regular, run-of-the mill Canadians in this?" he said. 

"Where are you when you hear somebody calling all Jewish students terrorists, or (saying) any Jewish student who believes that their ancestral right to self-determine in their homeland is racist — where is the Canadian turning around and saying, 'How dare you … how dare you say that to anybody?'"

Anastasia Zorchinsky, who attends Concordia University and is Israeli, said the situation on campuses has been allowed to escalate to the level that Jewish students do not feel welcome in the country's academic institutions.

"We're not students anymore, because instead of begging for an assignment extension, we have to beg for our safety on campuses while we sit in class with the same people who praised the terrorism on October 7."

Zorchinsky said she's woken up to read threatening comments on her Instagram account that say, "We will find you on campus."

University of Alberta law student Rachel Cook detailed how her request last December to have a menorah displayed at the school led instead to the removal of Christmas trees, which were on site. 

"I had one of my own faculty members signing an open letter stating that we should contextualize the brutality on Oct. 7 because it did not happen in a vacuum," she said.

Cook said she is also "deeply sorry" for what her Muslim classmates and the wider Muslim community are experiencing, adding, "there is a lot of hurt on both sides." 

The students on Wednesday described what they called a failure by school administrators to respond to their safety concerns and hold people accountable for targeting Jewish students.

Sydney Greenspoon, who attends the University of Windsor, said when she and other Jewish students were harassed and "forced to flee an event" by people who were calling them murderers, they filed a complaint with the school and were told nothing could be done because there were too few people to handle the deluge of similar complaints. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024. 

— With files from Dylan Robertson and The Associated Press

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press