Protesters say U of T should cut ties with Hebrew University. Are they right?

TORONTO — Pro-Palestinian protesters have been pushing the University of Toronto to boycott the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – which the Canadian school has long had partnerships with – but U of T says the demand is a non-starter.

U of T’s president, Meric Gertler, said this month that the school has "steadfastly maintained" it will not boycott partnerships with other universities.

But protest leaders at an encampment that has remained at the university’s campus in downtown Toronto since May 2, as well as some faculty members, argue that U of T's relationship with Hebrew U requires closer scrutiny, pointing to the site of its main campus, Mount Scopus in east Jerusalem.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized. Israel views the entire city as its capital, but Palestinians view the eastern sector as their capital.

Canada "does not recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of east Jerusalem," the Global Affairs Canada website says, while the United Nations and much of the international community regards east Jerusalem as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

For Chandni Desai, an assistant professor at U of T who is a member of the national organization Faculty for Palestine, the discussion surrounding Hebrew U centres on "ethical partnerships."

"The Hebrew University is deeply complicit in Israel’s violations of international human rights laws, specifically in Israel’s annexation of occupied east Jerusalem,” she said.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's presence in east Jerusalem predates Israel's creation in 1948. The university officially opened in 1925, at the Mount Scopus site, in what was then British-mandate Palestine.

Hebrew U left east Jerusalem amid the 1948 war that surrounded Israel's creation, when the new nation was attacked by neighbouring Arab states. On its website, Hebrew U says it "rebuilt and expanded" the Mount Scopus campus after Jerusalem was "reunited" in Israel's victory in the 1967 war.

Hebrew U supporters insist this history negates any suggestion that the main campus amounts to an illegal settlement on occupied Palestinian territory.

"The Hebrew University has owned private land in east Jerusalem before 1948 and thus maintains continuous private property rights in east Jerusalem, regardless of the area’s sovereignty status," the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University wrote in a June 6 blog post, addressing the protesters' boycott calls.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem did not respond to requests for comment.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have also highlighted Hebrew University programs associated with the Israel Defense Forces. It hosts Talpiot, a defence and technology training program that the Israel Ministry of Defense calls "one of Israel's elite military-academic technology units." It also hosts Havatzalot, an IDF intelligence training program.

The Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, which did not respond to requests for comment, has described those partnerships as "purely academic."

U of T's collaboration with the Hebrew University began in 2007 and in March the two institutions announced another research and training alliance scheduled to run through 2028, with that cycle focused on life sciences, natural sciences, engineering and bio-medical sciences.

In 2021, the two institutions launched a $15-million fundraising campaign for a research alliance to supplement a $5.9-million endowment from U of T and the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University.

The schools also offer study abroad and exchange opportunities for students.

Hebrew U's broader ties to Canada also span decades. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien received an honorary degree from the university when he visited the Mount Scopus campus in 2000.

But pro-Palestinian protesters have used the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which began with a Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, to force fresh examination of Canadian-Israeli relations.

Sara Rasikh, a graduate student at U of T and a spokesperson for the pro-Palestinian encampment, said that Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus sits on "stolen land."

"That's what that means, including the exchange programs, students quite literally are living on stolen land ... occupied illegal settlements," she said in an interview.

When asked about the implications of its partnership with the Hebrew University, U of T pointed to its previous statements on the pro-Palestinian protesters' encampment, including Gertler's pledge that the institution would "review human rights issues which may be relevant to international partnerships.”

Gertler has further written that calls to boycott Israeli academic institutions "are antithetical to the university’s firm conviction that the best way to protect human rights is by staunchly defending and promoting academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the unfettered circulation of ideas within the global scholarly community.”

"We have consistently emphasized that it is both inappropriate and, ultimately, counterproductive to single out academics working or studying in a particular country, and to hold them accountable for the actions or policies of their country’s government," he wrote.

U of T philosophy professor Rebecca Comay, a member of both the Jewish Faculty Network and Faculty for Palestine, said citing academic freedom in this situation is "totally disingenuous and misleading."

"How can the collaboration with such an institution be defended in the name of academic freedom?” she asked.

The Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University argued in its June blog post that boycotting Hebrew U is "morally wrong," noting that the school fosters discourse and is "independent of direct government interference."

"Weakening Israeli academia, as the boycott movement seeks to do, would only undermine this liberal and critical voice and weaken the democratic fabric of Israeli society," it wrote.

In 2022, Hebrew U said that Arab students made up nearly 17 per cent of its student population.

Israeli academic institutions, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have also been the subject of debate at other Canadian universities.

On June 3, the University of British Columbia’s senate defeated a motion “to cut or suspend ties with Israeli government entities, including public universities” with a significant majority, according to a UBC spokesperson.

In May, protesters at the Université du Québec à Montréal dismantled their pro-Palestinian encampment following the university’s adoption of a resolution that included a commitment to not enter academic agreements with universities that do not respect humanitarian law.

Protesters at McGill University, Concordia University and McMaster University have also called on their administrations to suspend ties with Israeli schools.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

Rianna Lim, The Canadian Press