U of T Hiring Controversy Continues to Swirl

Oct. 20, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Jewish groups are urging the University of Toronto’s law school to stand firm and not employ a scholar with a long history of criticizing Israel.

Valentina Azarova

At least two Jewish U of T faculty, B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation, and Canadians for Israel’s Legal Rights are calling on U of T to refuse to hire Valentina Azarova to lead the law school’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP).

U of T professors Stuart Kamenetsky and Howard Tenenbaum have started a petition arguing Azarova’s long history of targeting Israel in her writings make her unfit for the appointment.

“Frankly, we believe that she should not even have been considered as a candidate to lead the IHRP,” the professors say in their preamble.

In a news release, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn called Azarova’s past associations “worrying,” adding her body of writing is “overwhelmingly devoted, arguably obsessively committed” to Palestinian causes.

“Far from being an impartial academic, as she is often portrayed, Azarova is actively devoted to using a wide variety of platforms to promulgate anti-Israel advocacy,” Mostyn said.

Azarova and her supporters claim she was offered a position as director of the IHRP but that the offer was withdrawn after a Jewish mega-donor objected.

The controversy grew so intense that the university agreed to an “impartial review” of how the law school has handled the affair.

And the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is threatening the school with censure.

At the same time, the Tax Court of Canada judge whose alleged interference in the hiring process ignited the affair is being investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council. 

Law school dean Edward Iacobucci has denied that a formal employment offer was ever made to Azarova because of immigration difficulties.

Azarova’s supporters allege the university reneged on the deal because Justice David Spiro of the Tax Court objected to her history of legal writing that has accused Israel of widespread violations of Palestinian human rights. Spiro and his extended family are major donors to the university.

CAUT says if the allegation of donor interference in the appointment is true, it violates the principle of academic freedom.

On Oct. 15, CAUT’s executive council passed a motion approving a process of censuring U of T if “satisfactory steps” are not taken.

The imposition of censure still requires the approval of CAUT’s governing body. That meeting is set for Nov. 27.

Censure by the association would ask its more than 70,000 members at 125 universities and colleges across the country to refuse appointments, speaking engagements or honours at the University of Toronto.

In addition, CAUT will also “widely publicize” the dispute and ask associations of academic staff in other countries to respect the censure.

“The facts that have emerged strongly suggest the decision to cancel Azarova’s appointment was politically motivated, and as such would constitute a serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom,” CAUT executive director David Robinson said in an Oct. 15 statement.

In an earlier letter to U of T president Meric Gertler, Robinson said that “an institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its purpose and mission if it accedes to outside pressure or asserts the power to proscribe ideas, no matter how controversial.”

CAUT’s voice is only part of the chorus condemning the situation around Azarova’s hiring. The entire advisory board to the International Human Rights Program, and a member of the search committee, resigned in protest. Lawyers and academics from around the world have expressed anger.

Last week, for example, a letter signed by nine U of T law school faculty accused Iacobucci of “high handed” management that threatens to destroy the institution’s reputation.

Another letter to Gertler from 200 international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said the signers were “deeply concerned” the dean allowed external pressure to influence an appointment.

They called for an investigation of the affair, reinstatement of the offer to Azarova, sanctions against those responsible at the university, and apologies to Azarova and affected faculty and staff.

Iacobucci has never denied that a donor contacted the school about the potential appointment. In a letter to law school faculty released by the university, he called claims of outside interference “untrue and objectionable.”

He added: “Other considerations, including political views for and against any candidate, or their scholarship, were and are irrelevant.”

University leaders have backed that position since September, but on Oct. 14, they announced an independent review of the controversy to be led by Bonnie Patterson, former president of Trent University and the Council of Ontario Universities.

In a statement on the university’s website, Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s vice-president of human resources and equity, said Patterson is to “review all relevant documents and conduct interviews in order to provide (a) a comprehensive factual narrative of events pertaining to the search committee process and (b) the basis for the decision to discontinue the candidacy of the search committee’s preferred candidate.”

Participation in the review is voluntary and Patterson’s recommendations will be made public. Her report is due in January.

The terms of reference for the review have drawn derision from commentators, however.

James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, told the CJR that “there’s not much investigation left to do” because the facts of the case are already well known.

Both Turk and Robinson criticized the review’s terms of reference, noting they do not include the central question of whether Azarova was offered a job or whether improper pressure scuttled an offer.

And a review of the affair by Hannah-Moffat, Iacobucci, and U of T provost Cheryl Regehr is also troubling because all three have been involved in the scandal, Turk said.

“Any first year law student would know this is just crazy,” he said.

In a news release, Robinson of the CAUT said the proposed study’s flaws undermine its credibility.

“Given the seriousness of the case, what is needed is an independent review,” he said in a news release. “Instead we have a deeply flawed review where the investigator is appointed by and reports to the Vice-President for Human Resources who has already publicly defended the Dean’s decision to terminate the hiring of Dr. Azarova.”

To see Prof. Azarova’s curriculum vitae, click here: https://cdn.ku.edu.tr/resume/vazarova.pdf

For Zack Babins’ view on the Azarova controversy, click here.

Annamie Paul Makes History as New Green Party Leader

Oct. 4, 2020 –

Annamie Paul has made history by becoming the first Black and female Jewish leader of a political party in Canada.

Over the weekend, Paul captured the leadership of the Green Party of Canada after a nearly year-long race to replace Elizabeth May.

Annamie Paul Green party candidate
Annamie Paul

Paul, 47, defeated seven other candidates for the leadership. She polled 12,090 votes against her closest competitor, Dimitri Lascaris, who received 10,081 votes after eight rounds of voting.

“You have matched a leader to the challenges of this time,” Paul said in her victory speech. “We need to match the party to the needs of this moment. That party is the Green Party of Canada. We are the party for this moment.”

Other political parties “are simply out of ideas. They are intellectually exhausted. This is a moment that demands daring, courageous leadership and this is something that we simply didn’t see in the last speech from the throne,” Paul said. “I only heard empty words.”

Born in Toronto to Caribbean immigrant parents, Paul underwent an Orthodox Jewish conversion 20 years ago. Her husband is Jewish and they have twoteenage sons.

There has not been a Jewish leader of a federal political party since David Lewis led the NDP from 1971 to 1975.

“I think this country has been ready for some time to elect more diverse politicians,” Paul told the CJR in June. “I think minorities are as electable today as white men when they run for the right parties and the right areas.”

Paul will run in the Oct. 26 byelection in the riding of Toronto Centre, which was vacated after the abrupt resignation of former finance minister Bill Morneau. She lost to Morneau in the same riding in the last election.

In addition to a law degree from the University of Ottawa, Paul earned a masters degree in public affairs from Princeton University.

She told the CJR last summer that she joined the Green Party because she feels its core values – ecological awareness, non-violence, social justice, sustainability, participatory democracy and respect for diversity – best reflect her Jewish beliefs.

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the years thinking about what makes good public policy,” she said. “When I think about my life as a Jewish woman, these are the ideas that have guided me.”

Paul said she found particular reflections of Jewish values in the party’s commitment to social and economic justice and environmental sustainability.

“It is a very Jewish idea that when you save a life, you save an entire world,” she said. “These are values that show a profound respect for human life.”

She was the subject of racist and antisemitic attacks during the leadership campaign. At a virtual town hall, commenters used the ‘N’ word several times and referred to her and another candidate as a ‘f-ing Jew’ in a live chat.

“Most of the attacks, most of the online hate that I’ve received has really been targeted at my Jewish identity,” Paul told Global News prior to the leadership vote. The attacks were “an unrelenting onslaught of comments and commentary and trolling online. 

“And so as a Jewish person and as a Black woman, that kind of prejudice isn’t surprising….It still takes you aback — you never really quite get used to it.”

The Green Party’s relationship with Canada’s Jewish community was strained in August 2016, when the party passed a resolution supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. As a result, May said she was seriously considering resigning asleader.

Four months later, the party said it “explicitly rejects the notion of boycotting the state of Israel. The Green Party does not endorse the formal BDS movement, as it does not include supporting the right of the State of Israel to exist.”

At the same time, however, the party said it supports “only non-violent responses to violence and oppression, including economic measures such as government sanctions, consumer boycotts, institutional divestment, economic sanctions and arms embargoes.” It also condemned “illegal Israeli settlements.”

Paul would not tell the CJR whether she endorses that position, only that she continues to advocate for dialogue “as the preferred means for the resolution of the conflict.”

She said she supports a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict and feels dialogue is the only solution to the strife that has marked that part of the world.

“There has been violence in both directions,” she said “This is not a one-sided conflict. Around the world bitter, bitter enemies have eventually sat down around the table to discuss their differences. Israel must do everything it can to support those opportunities for dialogue.”

Paul favours a national ban on fracking and protecting 50 percent of Canada’s natural landscapes by 2050. She has said she wants to tackle systemic racism in the RCMP, and implement a guaranteed livable income and a universal pharmacare program, among other progressive initiatives.

Before jumping into federal politics, Paul worked as an advisor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and as a political officer in Canada’s mission to the European Union in Brussels.

She has served as the Green Party’s international affairs critic.

Second-place finisher Lascaris has achieved a certain notoriety in Jewish circles. An activist and lawyer, he has represented several pro-Palestinian causes, including the annual al-Quds Day rally in Toronto and efforts to abolish labeling of products from Jewish settlements as “Made in Israel.”

In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lambasted Lascaris for “vile antisemitic smears” after Lascaris accused two Jewish members of Parliament, Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather, of being “more devoted” to Israel than to Trudeau and the Liberal caucus.

In 2016 Lascaris was turfed as the party’s justice critic for publicly criticizing the leader of the British Columbia Greens, who had been critical of his party for considering the BDS resolution earlier that year (which Lascaris had enthusiastically endorsed).

Reportedly, Lascaris was endorsed for the Green Party’s leadership by Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters and Rabbi David Mivasair of Hamilton, Ont.

– By CJR Staff, with files from Steve Arnold

Critics of Ontario’s Bill 168 Miss the Mark

By HARRIS WATKINS

Working for a member of Ontario’s provincial parliament, I have often seen coordinated email campaigns influenced by external and third-party organizations (using the same subject line usually gives it away).

Such was the case when the office of Progressive Conservative MPP Natalia Kusendova (Mississauga Centre) began to receive concerns about Bill 168, The Combating Antisemitism Act, 2020, as anti-Israel activists in Toronto ramped up their pressure campaign against the proposed legislation.

Introduced last year by Conservative MPP Will Bouma and co-sponsored by fellow Tory MPP Robin Martin, Bill 168 calls on the government to be guided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in “interpretation of acts, regulations and policies designed to protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to antisemitism.” The bill passed second reading last February and now heads to committee hearings.

The coordinated email effort against the bill lists two predominant criticisms. First, because the IHRA definition was intended to be a working definition, it is insufficient to serve as a legal standard due to its inherently broad wording. Second, the definition is susceptible to being used as a tool to curb freedom of speech (specifically, criticism of Israel).

Both arguments fail to hold water.

The most widely accepted definition of antisemitism today, the IHRA interpretation has been endorsed by Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Parliament, France, Germany, and various academic bodies as a direct response to rising rates of antisemitism. More than 128 Jewish organizations recently signed an open letter calling on Facebook to adopt the definition, as antisemitism continues to fester on its platform.

If one were to consult the stated mission of the IHRA, they would see that its foremost objectives are to identify and address the practical needs of policymakers in eradicating antisemitism. The definition was created for the benefit of policymakers globally to provide nations around the world with an important tool to combat rising hatred and discrimination within their realms. Antisemitism is a global problem and requires global language to fix. The IHRA accomplishes this.

This same language in the IHRA definition can also be found in the writing of Bill 168 itself. The bill’s preamble states that its purpose is to use the definition in a manner that allows for a consistent interpretation of all governmental action directed toward protecting Ontarians from hatred and discrimination. It goes on to say that the government will “be guided by the working definition of antisemitism and the list of it adopted by the IHRA.” 

This appears to me to be in line with both the stated purpose and wording of the definition.

The bill’s premise is that the definition will aid in enacting legislation that will itself be legally binding — not simply that the definition will be taken and made into law without any sort of democratic guidance in the policymaking process. This wording affirms the ability for policymakers to use the definition as a tool in governance.

Thus, the Ontario government is seeking to utilize the definition as it was intended.

Second, the IHRA definition clearly has no gripe with legitimate criticisms of Israel and its policies. What it does, however, is draw a valid link between antisemitism and anti-Zionist prejudices. This encompasses the noted double-standard invariably applied by antisemites to the actions of Israel but not to other democratic states. It also provides a valid condemnation of the belief that the Jewish people are not, like all other peoples, entitled to a geographical homeland. 

What sort of “legitimate” criticism of Israel could take issue with the fact that the IHRA definition reiterates the right of Israel to exist?

If the so-called legitimate criticism of Israel purported to be silenced by this legislation does not even hold that the country should exist, there clearly isn’t a point in engaging in dialogue, because criticism implies improving; we cannot work to improve what some would rather simply destroy

If a problem-solving discussion is what opponents of Bill 168 want, the IHRA definition is clearly able to facilitate it.

What the Ontario bill’s detractors really seem to want, however, is the freedom of speech to decry the legitimacy of Israel’s existence; as being null, and, as long as the state exists, as bonafide apartheid.

Supporters of Bill 168, including a plurality Canadian Jewish organizations, agree that calling for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state is antisemitic, hence a form of illegitimate criticism. In turn, naysayers say they are simply “cowering to Israeli interests” and promoting “Zionist propaganda.” Like the COVID conspiracy theorists, they truly have an answer for everything.

The reality is that the scope of real discourse is severely constrained if the IHRA definition is not in play, as it allows detractors to fester and solutions to legitimate problems be damned.

Look no further than the vast array of debate within Israel itself to see just how much the Jewish people are divided on the actions and policy of the government. Legitimate criticism of the government is rife — as it should be in a democratic state — yet within this discussion is an overwhelming consensus that the state is legitimate and should exist. This is absolutely no different than any other democratic country, for these diverse views on governance and policy that Israelis hold are typically borne of a personal perspective of how the country can best flourish according to their perspective. 

Detractors say that even Jewish and Israeli groups will be silenced by Bill 168. This is simply fear-mongering. 

The IHRA definition admirably attempts to help policymakers and decision makers of conscience by providing them with a definition of antisemitism conducive to decision-making to the benefit of constituents. Of course, while no itemized definition of antisemitism will be perfect and able to account for every aspect of this complex phenomenon, this definition is no doubt the most extensive and most fit to curb the alarming rise of antisemitism in our province.

This is something not only to the benefit of Ontario’s Jewish community, but all of us who value eradicating hate and prejudice wherever they may manifest. 


Harris Watkins
Harris Watkins

Harris Watkins is the Israel Advocacy Coordinator with Hasbara Fellowships Canada and a staff member in the office of MPP Natalia Kusendova.