ZARNETT-KLEIN: Making a Difference at York University: A Tale of Appreciation and Frustration

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

“What can we do to materially improve Jewish student safety and inclusion at York University?”

For six months, this has been the guiding question in my pursuit to make life better and fairer for Jews and pro-Israel students at York. 

In recent days, York University released two anticipated reports. The first was an independent external review by Justice Thomas Cromwell, formerly of the Supreme Court of Canada. The second was a report of the Internal Working Group appointed by York University. Each was tasked with examining the events of Nov. 20, 2019.

I have been a York student for seven years. But Nov. 20, 2019 was different. I witnessed first-hand the horrific protests that occurred that night. As a student, I was familiar with the issues at York. But that night, something changed. I could no longer be a bystander. I had to stand up. 

And so began my activism. I conducted hours of research and writing. I posted videos to social media of me speaking on the issue, to raise awareness. I reached out to elected officials, community advocacy organizations, my own personal network, and York’s administration. It seemed that no one was quite sure what to do. 

Let me say that there are good people who want to make a change. Let me also say that these same people often don’t know how to effect that change, or, even if they have an idea, are intimidated into silence.

With the reports now released, my initial thoughts are those of appreciation and frustration. I appreciate the strong education that I have received at York University. I have been fortunate to find many welcoming spaces on campus, including at Hillel York and Hasbara Fellowships Canada. 

I appreciate that York’s administration has expressed its commitment to address key issues, voiced understanding of our concerns, and continues to have meaningful dialogue with our community leaders.

I appreciate that the administration commissioned an independent external review. I was interviewed by Justice Cromwell through my contribution to the submission of a Jewish advocacy organization. I found this process to be both professional and thorough. 

I appreciate that B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre each made submissions to the Cromwell review.

I appreciate the expressed support from several elected officials across party lines, some of whom I had the opportunity to engage over the past several months.

However, I’m also frustrated.

I’m frustrated that only one recommendation adopted by the Internal Working Group references “antisemitism,” and only one recommendation includes the word “Jewish.”

I support the recommended focus on education to address racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism on campus. Yet, I’m frustrated by the lack of a plan to account for people who choose not to engage productively. Education is the carrot, but we’re missing the stick.

I’m frustrated that the Internal Working Group released its recommendations before consulting broadly with students. I understand that the group now intends to welcome feedback from the York community. But I fear that the report’s release may prejudice any advice that is to come.

I’m frustrated that neither report satisfactorily recognizes antisemitism within the specific context of York University. Although antisemitism is not unique to York, it exists at York in unique ways. This includes:

• Social isolation: Jewish and pro-Israel students are made uncomfortable by campus dynamics, causing many such students to retreat from student life.

• Systemic marginalization: Motions by the student union that singularly criticize Israel are adopted in the name of the entire student body.

• Public manifestations, such as the protests last November.

Finally, I’m frustrated that neither report references the mural in the York University Student Centre, which furthers both anti-Israel and anti-Palestinian biases. This mural portrays a Palestinian man preparing to throw rocks at an Israeli village – an unmistakable call to violence against civilians. It casts Palestinians in a negative light, targets Israel, and heightens tensions on campus. This mural stymies open and respectful dialogue.

I hope this marks a turning point. We must continue to advocate for changes at York University. We must ensure proper implementation of the recommendations of these reports.

Today, I am left with the same question as when I started: 

“What can we do to materially improve Jewish student safety and inclusion at York University?”

I hope this question is given further consideration. I am optimistic that, as a York University community and as civil society, we can find the answer. It is time we answer this call to action.


Zachary Zarnett Klein
Zachary Zarnett Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a York University student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.