U of T Launches Working Group to Combat Antisemitism on Campus

Dec. 10, 2020

By RAHUL KALVAPALLE

The University of Toronto has launched an Anti-Semitism Working Group to examine and address anti-Semitism on campus, and to ensure the university is an inclusive and welcoming place for Jewish members of its community.

The working group, whose contributions will form an integral part of the university’s commitment to addressing systemic forms of racism across its three campuses, including Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, will make recommendations to U of T President Meric Gertler, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, Human Resources and Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat.

Led by Arthur Ripstein, a University Professor in the Faculty of Law and in the department of philosophy, the working group will review the processes and practices in place to address antisemitism on U of T’s three campuses and develop a framework to support the university’s response to the issue.

It will recommend ways to improve education about antisemitism and responses to antisemitic incidents, as well as propose new programs and initiatives to eliminate antisemitism on-campus.

It will also examine best practices at other large, research-intensive universities and consult with students, faculty, librarians and staff about how to create an inclusive environment that welcomes and supports community members who are Jewish.

“Our aim is to see to it that the university not only responds when there are incidents or allegations of antisemitism, but is also proactive in creating a culture of inclusion within which various forms of discrimination, including antisemitism, are better understood and tackled through education,” Ripstein said.

“Antisemitism is like other forms of discrimination in some ways, and different from them in other ways. The point of having working groups that examine multiple types of injustice and discrimination in our university is to come up with strategies for dealing with not just the general problem, but also its particular manifestation.”

Antisemitism “is a source of discrimination, harassment and hatred that undermines our values,” Hannah-Moffat said. “U of T recognizes that we need to be more proactive and responsive to address it on our campuses.

“No form of discrimination is tolerated at the University of Toronto.”

Ripstein said consultations with the U of T community will be key to the working group’s efforts and that information provided by the community will help shape its recommendations.

“Our main work will be, in the first instance, listening to and seeking input from members of the university community. We want to hear about their concerns and instances of antisemitism of which they think we should be made aware,” he said.

“As a university, the way we deal with problems is to study them. And so, our first task is going to be to study the problem and think about ways to manage it within the context of the university’s broader commitment to being a place where difficult questions can be addressed and considered in a respectful and inclusive manner.”

Ripstein invited members of the U of T community to share their feedback by emailing the Anti-Semitism Working Group at anti.semitism.working.group@utoronto.ca.

In addition to Ripstein, the members of the working group are:

· Miriam Borden, PhD student, Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures in the Faculty of Arts & Science

· Shauna Brail, Associate Professor, Institute for Management & Innovation, U of T Mississauga

· Ayelet Kuper, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Temerty Faculty of Medicine

· Faye Mishna, Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work

· Anna Shternshis, Al and Malka Green Professor of Yiddish and Diaspora Studies, Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures, Faculty of Arts & Science; and Director, Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies

· Nouman Ashraf, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, Rotman School of Management

· Anita Balakrishna, Director, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Temerty Faculty of Medicine

· Karima Hashmani, Executive Director, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Division of HR & Equity

· Jodie Glean, Director, Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office and Project Manager, Anti-Semitism Working Group.

– Reprinted with permission from UofT News.

Program Explores War-Era Yiddish Songs About Sickness, Grief

Sept. 10, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Who knew that pandemics could occasion music? Songs written while typhus epidemics raged in ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust will be aired on Zoom from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13.

The program, Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, is a lecture/concert featuring Psoy Korolenko on vocals, with guest performances by singer Isaac Rosenberg and the Payadora Tango Ensemble. University of Toronto Prof. Anna Shternshis will discuss the songs and their origins.

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One of the songs to be premiered at the free event is I Am a Typhus Louse, written in 1942 in Transnistria (now part of Moldova and Ukraine) by L. Vinakur. It’s a comic song from the perspective of a typhus louse, whose greater numbers ravaged the Transnistria Ghetto, and now wants to turn its attention to the Nazi soldiers.

Spread by lice, typhus was rampant during the Second World War, as Jews and other prisoners in the concentration camps were victims of forced starvation and horrific living conditions. It killed hundreds of thousands of people. 

Remembering the typhus epidemic is all the more timely amid the worldwide COVID pandemic. When the lockdown started in Toronto last March, Shternshis began researching Yiddish songs about epidemics to see how past generations dealt with them.

I Am a Typhus Louse is one of the songs Shternshis discovered in 2005, in an archive at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. From the library’s basement, she retrieved thousands of Yiddish song lyrics, stories and letters.

The songs were written in the Soviet Union by men, women and children – Holocaust victims and survivors, and Jewish Red Army soldiers. They were collected from 1943 to 1947 by a team of Soviet ethnomusicologists from the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, led by Moisei Beregovsky. The subjects of the songs include accounts of Nazi genocide of Jews in Ukraine. The songs often express the desire for revenge against Adolf Hitler.

“Some of the most striking findings from this archive were songs written in small camps and ghettos in Nazi-occupied areas of Ukraine from where there remain no photographs,” Shternshis said in a YouTube video. 

“Songs were written by amateur authors, often children, sometimes women, and none of them were professional poets or songwriters,” she said. “All of these songs document what mattered to people then – issues of daily life, pandemics, starvation, and violence in ghettos.”

Beregovsky had hoped to publish an anthology of the songs but the project was never completed, as he and his colleagues were arrested in 1949, at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge. The archive was seized and remained in unlabelled boxes in the library until the 1990s, when a librarian catalogued the contents.

Anna Shternshis, Psoy Korolenko
Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko

In 2014, Shternshis worked with Korolenko, who paired lyrics from the archive with melodies he adapted from popular Yiddish and Soviet Second World War-era songs. Since then, they’ve been performed in venues around the world, including at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. A collection of the songs, Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019 in the Best World Music Album category.

Among the songs featured in the Zoom program will be My Mother’s Grave, written by a 10-year-old who was a prisoner in the Pechora concentration camp, operated by Romania during the Second World War in the village of Pechora, now in Ukraine. In the song, the child details his grieving after losing his mother, and vows that the enemy will be defeated. 

Information on how to access Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, co-presented by Klez Kanada, the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at U of T and the Canada Council of the Arts, is provided on the poster that accompanies this article.

To watch the video I Am a Typhus Louse, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK8ERL5SSic