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Jewish students tell Commons committee they’re terrified by campus antisemitism

Jewish university students told a parliamentary committee Thursday their universities have failed to protect them from antisemitic incidents on campus since the start of Israel’s war on Hamas.

“The consistent failure of our universities to take action against the hate taking place on our campuses has emboldened anti-Israel activists to become more radical,” said Nicole Nashen, a McGill University law student.

Nashen said her grandparents were proud of her when she started her studies at McGill, but they “are now horrified by the rampant antisemitism that I and my Jewish peers are experiencing on campus.”

She pointed to a sign at the pro-Palestinian encampment at McGill University that reads “no Zionists allowed,” calling it antisemitic.

“Zionism should not be controversial,” she told MPs. “It is simply the belief of Jewish self-determination in our homeland, and it does not preclude the existence of a Palestinian state, too.”

Another law student, Rachel Cook of the University of Alberta, said she walked past an art installation at the school’s Rutherford Library on Tuesday which had a swastika scrawled on it, along with a message praising the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, listed as a terror group by the Canadian government.

She said the installation also had a message on it reading “death to ZOGs” — a reference to an antisemitic conspiracy theory claiming some western governments are secretly run by Jews.

“I have been left after this year with the impression that the U of A is more interested in covering up systematic antisemitism on campus than addressing it head-on and working towards change,” Cook said. 

University took action following complaint

CBC News reached out to the University of Alberta on Wednesday. A spokesperson said the art installation — an interactive display about the war in Gaza — would be wiped clean of hate symbols.

On Thursday morning, the university issued a statement saying that, that in consultation with the artist, “it took immediate action. The artist removed the hate speech, and the university has put measures in place to guard against any potential future vandalism.”

A CBC News crew visited the university on Thursday afternoon to interview one of the artists behind the work, Michael Cor, who is also with the school’s Faculty of Art.

The swastika and ZOG reference were gone but the message about the PFLP was still there. The message “Zionism is terrorism” was written on the piece as well.

A blanket is covering an art installation.
An interactive display about the war in Gaza is seen covered after it was marked with hate symbols. (Submitted by Michael Cor)

“The university was trying to work out a way that we could keep the piece here without having to remove [the installation],” Cor said.

“We explained that this is part of the process and we will remove any hateful language. We had some good conversations with some of the staff, and it was educational, just in terms of what some of those coded words, like ZOG, meant.”

CBC News reached out to the university again about the statements that were still on the display as of Thursday afternoon.

The university has yet to respond, but in the meantime, Cor sent a picture showing the display has been completely covered. 

Liberals, Conservatives point fingers

During Thursday’s committee hearing, Liberal MPs Anthony Housefather and Marco Mendicino said universities and other levels of government share responsibility for making students feel safe.

“The Parliament of Canada makes the Criminal Code. Enforcement is provincial,” Housefather said. “Post-secondary institutions are the jurisdiction of the provinces and college administrators are largely responsible for what happened.”

Conservative Deputy Leader Melissa Lantsman asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.
Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman showed Jewish university students a photo of two Liberal cabinet ministers meeting with a Palestinian official and asked if ‘pictures like this help.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman asked the students if they thought the federal government had done enough to protect Jewish students or ensure the law is enforced on campus. They agreed it had not.

They had a different reaction when Lantsman showed them a recent picture of Liberal cabinet ministers Mélanie Joly and Ya’ara Saks meeting with President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas during a visit to the West Bank in March.

“Do you think pictures like this help? Yes or no?” Lantsman asked the witnesses.

“Last time I checked I don’t have to say yes or no,” said Nati Pressmann, a third-year Queens University student and the founder of Canadian Union of Jewish Voices. “I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant to what we’re discussing right now. Obviously, the community’s harmed by that picture.”

“I’d like to be asked a question about my experience on campus,” said Nashen.

“The government has the power to hold [universities]  to account. The government has the power to be able to enforce the laws that already exist. Government has the power to make Jewish students feel safe on on campus,” Lantsman told CBC News after the hearing wrapped.

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