MONTREAL — In the days since Hamas launched violent attacks on Israel, Canadian universities have been grappling with how to address a deeply divisive subject that has sparked grief, anger and heated debate on campuses and in wider society.
Several universities have faced backlash for public statements, while others have been forced to respond to groups who expressed support for the militant group's actions.
Some schools, including Concordia University in Montreal and Western University in London, Ont., drew criticism online for statements that mentioned "violence in the Middle East" but did not mention Israel or the attack Saturday on its civilian population. Others, such as Waterloo, used stronger language, condemning the "reprehensible terrorist attack on Israeli civilians."
The University of Toronto wrote a statement on Oct. 8 expressing concern for students in "the Middle East region" before putting out another a day later condemning terrorist violence and the "attack on Israel’s civilian population."
Avishai Infeld, advocacy coordinator for Jewish student organization Hillel Montreal, says he doesn't feel campuses are doing enough to support students who are mourning and in many cases fearful of going back to class in the wake of pro-Palestinian protests that have taken place in many cities this week.
"They're literally scared to leave their dorm rooms, to leave their apartments, their houses, to come to events where the community is coming together to mourn and to be together in solidarity," such as vigils and Shabbat dinners, he said in a phone interview.
Infeld acknowledged that debate over the situation in the Middle East has been a part of Canadian university life for decades, where pro-Palestinian student groups have a prominent voice. While he has disagreed with many of the groups' past campaigns, he believes the current situation is on another level.
"They’re actually celebrating violence against Jews,against the family members of students in our universities," he said, adding that "every Jew in the world has some sort of connection to people who are affected by this."
Infeld said that vaguely worded statements from schools, and even offers of mental health support, aren't enough. What is needed, he said, is a "clear condemnation of the terrorism," distancing from groups who express support for violence and meaningful assurances of a safe academic environment for Jewish students.
Infeld's alma mater, Montreal's McGill University, is among those that have been pressed to respond to statements by pro-Palestinian groups. On Monday, the university said it had asked a group called Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill to stop using the school's name over posts on social media that described Saturday's attack in Israel as "heroic" and, at a rally, asked Montrealers to "celebrate the resistance’s success."
"McGill University denounces these communications; the celebration of acts of terror and violence is completely antithetical to McGill’s fundamental values," said Michel Proulx, a spokesman for the university, who added that the group is under the umbrella of a student society that is "wholly independent from McGill."
In Hamilton, Ont., a union representing teaching assistants and sessional faculty posted a message reading, "Palestine is rising, long live the resistance” to X — formerly Twitter — in the hours following the attack.
The university said it was "shocked and disappointed" at the since-deleted post. "While free speech is a core value of the university, there is no room for hate of any kind at McMaster," it said in a statement.
The union, CUPE 3906, defended its support of Palestine, writing, "We reject any characterization of our message, replying to images of apartheid infrastructure coming down, as celebrating civilian death."
In Montreal, four student pro-Palestinian groups, including Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill, also pushed back against the backlash they've faced. In a statement posted to social media, they said the Israeli regime is “fully responsible” for the ongoing violence, which they describe as "a consequence of decades of oppression" of the Palestinian people.
"We reject the claims by the McGill administration that SPHR McGill’s social media posts 'celebrate recent acts of terror and violence,'" they wrote. "We are not celebrating violence, we are looking at the prospect of liberation."
Adam Muller, director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Manitoba, said discussing the situation in the Middle East is just as challenging inside universities as it is in the wider world.
While there's no easy way to find common ground, he says he favours a "bottom-up" approach that focuses on the perspectives of ordinary people affected by violence.
"I think by partly reframing what's going on now as a conflict in which there are civilian non-combatant victims in Gaza and in Israel who need something done on their behalf to protect them and to ensure their safety moving forward, that becomes a conversation that we can have," he said.
Uncomfortable as it is, he believes universities have a responsibility to create spaces in which people feel safe sharing their perspectives and disagreeing without hating each other — something that requires ground rules and mutual respect. Even then, it isn't easy, he said.
"But if we don't do it, then we risk just conceding everything to these loud voices on the hard ends of this issue," he said. "And once we do that, then we're going to deal with violence being the only way to end the disagreement."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2023.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press