York University Sanctions Student Groups Over Rally Clashes

April 2009

Toronto's York University has penalized four student organizations for participating in disorderly rallies and also says it is investigating a series of purported hate crimes. The announcement follows criticism that the administration has not sufficiently clamped down on rancorous, militant behaviour, which culminated in a series of tense protests and counter-protests involving pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups on February 12.

The school said on Thursday that the participants broke an agreement that they not disrupt classes in the vicinity of Vari Hall, a popular, all-purpose building where students can go to lectures, socialize or protest. "We understand that there will be protests from time to time, but these clubs agreed not to disrupt classes," said Rob Tiffin, vice president of students. "There were drums and bullhorns on both sides."

Hasbara Fellowship, an Israeli advocacy group, was suspended for 30 days and fined $1000, the maximum penalty for the infraction. The same penalties apply to Students Against Israeli Apartheid.

On account of its "secondary role," Hillel@York - another Jewish group on campus - was fined $500, but was not suspended.

Hillel's president, Daniel Ferman, disagreed with the penalty, saying that his group had never made an agreement with the administration, nor did it use amplification.

Mr. Ferman also insisted that York still refuses to acknowledge that safety has become an issue for Jewish students on its campus. "True confidence will not happen until the university recognizes the severity of events in recent weeks. This is only the first acknowledgement, and we're upset it took this long. It didn't even say that Jewish students were targeted."

In a recent speech, York President Mamdouh Shoukri made his most explicit statement on the controversies.

"Intimidation, bullying, and discrimination will not be tolerated here," he told the university senate on Feb. 26. "We are taking action to protect the rights and the safety of all students and staff."

The York University Tamil Students' Association was also penalized for a separate protest in Vari Hall, in which it accused Sri Lanka of committing genocide against the Tamil people. It was suspended for 15 days and fined $500.

Mr. Tiffin also said the school is investigating complaints from incidents that involve Jewish and pro-Palestinian groups.

On Feb. 11, a non-denominational group called Drop YFS held a press conference to announce it had gathered 5,000 signatures necessary to impeach the student executive, the York Federation of Students, which has been highly critical of Israel. The gathering was disrupted by dozens of pro school-government protesters.

Feeling threatened, members of Drop YFS ran upstairs to the lounge of Hillel. Eventually, about 100 YFS supporters swarmed at the door, allegedly baiting and harassing those inside.

Mr. Ferman, also member of Drop YFS who took refuge in the lounge, claimed that when he briefly faced the throng, he was referred to as a "dirty Jew" and "f---ing Jew."

Toronto police are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime, as well as subsequent incident in which a Jewish student was harassed as she left the Hillel lounge a week later.

Earlier last month, another Jewish student involved in the Drop YFS movement reported receiving a phone call at his Thornhill, Ontario, home during which an unidentified person threatened his life and those of his family members if he did not stop his pro-Israel activities.

A potential hate crime is now being investigated by York Regional Police. "We've made progress in identifying the number of the caller," said Det. Brent Kemp of the force's Hate Crimes Unit, but would not elaborate. Mr. Tiffin suggested that outsiders may have been ratcheting recent tensions. "They're not all students who show up these events," he said. "There might be legal options that make it inadvisable for them to come onto the campus."