Another Complaint Against Judge in U of T Hiring Dispute

By STEVE ARNOLD

A second complaint has been filed against a Jewish judge accused of interfering in the hiring by the University of Toronto law school of a scholar who has been highly critical of Israel.

Justice David Spiro

The new complaint was filed with the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) on Oct. 10 by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, and Independent Jewish Voices of Canada (which supports the BDS campaign against Israel).

It alleges that Justice David Spiro, a judge on the Tax Court of Canada, used his influence to oppose the hiring of Valentina Azarova, a scholar with a record of supporting Palestinian human rights.

“If the allegations against him are true, Justice Spiro’s conduct fails to meet the standard of integrity and impartiality required of a judge,” the association said.

Backers of the new complaint have asked for their issues to be joined with an earlier complaint filed by two law school professors.

Valentina Azarova

The complaints allege that U of T offered to hire Azarova as director of the law school’s International Human Rights Program. The offer was allegedly withdrawn after a university donor complained of Azarova’s history of anti-Israel work.

Law school dean Edward Iacobucci has never denied being approached about the hiring, but has said that while there were initial talks with an applicant, an employment offer was never extended because of immigration difficulties.

Edward Iacobucci

Spiro, who, along with his extended family, has helped U of T raise millions of dollars, was identified as the source of the alleged interference by reports in the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail. 

For Azarova’s supporters, the affair challenges academic freedom.

“The BCCLA is deeply invested in the resolution of this complaint for two main reasons: to uphold judicial independence and to protect freedom of expression, both of which are crucial to the democratic process,” said Meghan McDermott, Interim Policy Director of the BCCLA.

“As a civil liberties organization, we always fear the chilling effect that public decisions can have on the expressive rights of individuals and the general quality of public discourse. What happened to Dr. Azarova appears to us to fit into an escalating pattern of people being censored or otherwise penalized for expressing their views about the human rights of Palestinians.”     

CJC communications director Johanna Laporte said in an email that the Spiro complaint is “under active review.”

Meantime, the university has appointed Bonnie Patterson, former president of Trent University and the Ontario Council of Universities, to review how the search was handled and whether any university policies were breached.

Patterson’s report is to be submitted by mid-January. U of T president Meric Gertler has ordered that the final report be submitted directly to him and not to administrators involved in the decision. He promised to make it public “subject only to respecting the privacy of individual candidates involved in the search process.”

He said he has followed the controversy with “deep concern.”

“Any suggestion that academic freedom has been violated must be treated with the utmost gravity. It is also critically important that the integrity of our search processes be upheld,” Gertler wrote.

James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, said the moves taken by Gertler are “a good step” but don’t fix the real problem.

“Clearly, the U of T felt a lot of public pressure because of its mishandling of this,” Turk said in an email. “The only proper solution is to restore Prof. Azarova’s job offer.”

BREAKING: West Bank Wine Case Shuts Out Interveners

Oct. 8, 2020

Jewish advocacy groups will not have a say in the case of the wine labels from Israel.

In a recent ruling, a Federal Court judge denied intervener status to a dozen organizations that sought input in the ongoing challenge to wines made in the West Bank but labeled as “Product of Israel.”

Psagot Winery

They included the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights.

One of wineries at the centre of the case, Psagot Winery Ltd., was added to the case as a respondent, but the court said its participation “must be limited.”

At issue in the case is whether wines produced by the Psagot and Shiloh wineries in West Bank Jewish settlements can be labeled as “Product of Israel” under Canadian law.

Last year, a Federal Court judge found that “made in Israel” labels on settlement wines are “false, misleading and deceptive” because international law does not recognize the West Bank as part of Israel, and that Canadians have a right shop “conscientiously.” She returned the case to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s appeals board for further consideration.

The government appealed her ruling. But before the appeal could be heard, a judge dismissed everyone who wanted to weigh in on the case, saying, in effect, that the court will not be drawn into a battle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his ruling, Federal Court of Appeal Judge David Stratas said that “a number” of parties wishing to intervene wanted to address “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including the status of the West Bank, the territorial sovereignty of Israel, human rights and humanitarian concerns, issues of international law, and other related issues. Many of them appear to want this Court to rule on the merits of these issues.

“But there is one basic problem,” the judge wrote. “This appeal does not raise the merits of these issues.”

He said the case should properly rest on Canadian laws regulating the labeling of food and drugs, which are designed to protect consumers. There is “nothing to suggest,” Stratas said, that these laws “were enacted to address state occupation of territories and, in particular, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.”

The Israel/West Bank issue “is a controversial one, with many differing views and deeply-felt opinions on all sides,” the judge went on. However, it is not “useful” for the appeals court to hear the interveners.

In addition to CIJA and B’nai Brith, Stratas dismissed requests to intervene from Independent Jewish Voices, the Centre for Free Expression, Amnesty International Canada, Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, Prof. Michael Lynk (the UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights), the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, the Transnational Law and Justice Network, and Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights, Al-Haq.

Independent Jewish Voices and B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights were interveners in the Federal Court case.

Stratas also took aim at other judges who “give the impression that they decide cases based on their own personal preferences, politics and ideologies. Increasingly, they wander into the public square and give virtue signalling and populism a go.”

The judge said he didn’t want to be too hard on the prospective interveners, saying he suspects that some of them were “lured” to the appeal “by torqued-up press reports distorting what the Federal Court decided. And once one group applies to intervene on a controversial issue like this, others feel they also have to apply.”

The Psagot winery, about 20 kilometers northeast of Jerusalem in an Israeli settlement of the same name, was added to the case as a respondent because the court should have notified it of the case, said the judge. The court said the winery was “never invited” to join the case but should have been, and that it found out about the matter from media reports.

The winery “is pleased to have been granted the opportunity to be a party to this important legal proceeding,” said its lawyers, David Elmaleh and Aaron Rosenberg of the Toronto firm RE-LAW.

The firm’s website leaves little doubt about how it feels when it comes to the winery’s legal status:

“Psagot Winery’s wines are produced by Israelis under the auspices of an Israeli company in an Israeli community on Israeli land subject to Israeli law, in the State of Israel, and in the Land of Israel. Its wines are products of Israel.”

In a statement to the CJR, David Matas, legal counsel to the League for Human Rights, found fault with Stratas’ “over-generalizations.”

Also, this ruling was made by a single judge. “Yet the appeal itself will be heard, presumably, by a panel of three judges. The other two members of the panel might disagree with this judge on many of the statements he made.”

Interveners may ask the court to reconsider its decision within 10 days of the ruling, but “it is too early for B’nai Brith Canada to decide whether we will or will not do so.”

The case goes back to 2017, when Winnipeg resident David Kattenburg raised concerns with Ontario’s liquor board that products from the two wineries were from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, not from Israel itself, and were deceptively labeled as “Product of Israel.”

He then complained to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which sided with him. However, after Jewish groups protested, the agency abruptly reversed course, saying the wines could be sold under the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.

Kattenburg appealed to the agency’s Complaints and Appeals Office, which upheld the reversal. He then sought a judicial review at the Federal Court.

The court sided with Kattenburg, and Jewish groups urged an appeal based on what they said were errors committed by the judge. The government agreed. Due to delays brought about by COVID, it is not clear when the matter will be heard.

* The above clarifies that the Psagot winery was added to this case as a respondent, not an internever.

– By CJR Staff