Supporters of U of T doctor describe allegations of antisemitism as 'disingenuous' and stifling

·4 min read
Dr. Ritika Goel is the social justice, anti-oppression and advocacy theme lead for the doctor of medicine and postgraduate training programs at the University of Toronto. (University of Toronto - image credit)
Dr. Ritika Goel is the social justice, anti-oppression and advocacy theme lead for the doctor of medicine and postgraduate training programs at the University of Toronto. (University of Toronto - image credit)

Friends and colleagues are rushing to the defence of a University of Toronto doctor and faculty member accused of antisemitic behaviour, arguing that the allegations against her are baseless and harmful to larger efforts to stamp out racism and prejudice.

Dr. Ritika Goel, the social justice, anti-oppression and advocacy theme lead for the doctor of medicine and postgraduate training programs at the University of Toronto, is the target of an anonymous open letter that began circulating last week.

The letter describes a "prevailing culture of antisemitism and xenophobia" within the faculty, and ultimately calls for the "prompt dismissal" of Goel from her position with the university's Department of Family and Community Medicine (DFCM).

A screen shot of an anonymous open letter calling for the firing of Dr. Ritika Goel.
A screen shot of an anonymous open letter calling for the firing of Dr. Ritika Goel.(CBC News)

"I was outraged when I read that letter," said Dr. Samantha Green, a physician and colleague of Goel's for the past five years at the DFCM.

"I think she's really having a hard time," Green said of Goel. "Her entire career is built on working in solidarity with marginalized populations."

Goel was recently among nearly 3,000 signatories to a different open letter calling on Canadian health workers to express solidarity with Palestinians.

The letter describes the situation facing Palestinians as a worsening health crisis. It highlights the recent destruction of medical facilities and the killing of Palestinian doctors as a result of air strikes by the Israeli military. The conflict has strained a Gazan health-care system already on the brink of disaster from the COVID-19 pandemic, the letter argues.

That a university-afflilated doctor could become the target of antisemitic accusations illustrates the challenges facing people who speak out about the current conflict and the plight of Palestinians, her supporters argue.

Too often, they say people who publicly criticize Israel are wrongfully dismissed as antisemites.

Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, a senior doctor at the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip, was killed by an Israeli air strike on May 16.
Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, a senior doctor at the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip, was killed by an Israeli air strike on May 16. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"I think it's actually disingenuous to accuse someone of antisemitism simply for criticizing actions taken by a nation state," Green said. "And it also takes away from the very real and ongoing antisemitic acts that happen."

More than 1,000 people, including doctors and medical students, have signed a third open letter, which calls the letter demanding Goel's firing "defamatory and libellous."

Accusations of antisemitism 'stifle conversations'

"I think the claims of antisemitism against Dr. Goel are a conflation of criticizing Israel, criticizing the actions of the Israeli government and the Israeli army with antisemitism," said Dr. Zac Feilchenfeld, a Toronto physician who defended Goel in a recent Twitter thread.

"These accusations serve to stifle conversations, to shut down any expressions of support for the rights of Palestinians to live and peace and to have justice."

Goel declined an interview with CBC Toronto, citing concerns over further exposing herself to attacks on her character.

"I unequivocally condemn antisemitism," she said on Twitter last week after the letter calling for her firing became public. "As a health community in Canada, we must support human rights and justice, denounce war crimes and support international law."

In addition to the anonymous open letter, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies also released a statement about Goel last week, in which the organization called on the University of Toronto to urgently begin an investigation into the accusations against Dr. Goel and the DFCM.

University silent on allegations against Goel

In an emailed statement to CBC Toronto, the University of Toronto did not say if it was investigating the allegations against Goel, nor if her position with the DFCM was under review.

"We cannot comment on individual faculty members, and emphasize that supporting all of our learners, faculty and staff is embedded in our core values," reads the statement issued by the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, which encompasses the DFCM.

A spokesperson also provided a link to a statement on freedom of speech issued by the university in 1992.

Green said the generic statement issued by the university amounts to a disheartening lack of support for Goel.

"The university just needs to come out publicly in support of Dr. Goel," Green said.

"Without a response from the university I really feel silenced."