StandWithUs Canada Provides Tools for Jewish Students

Oct. 13, 2020

By STEVEN GREENWOOD

It’s been no secret that antisemitism is an old problem at Toronto’s York University, and a serious security issue for Jewish students. In recent years, the changing geopolitical climate on campus has led to a situation where open antisemitism is no longer confined to extremist circles. It has become mainstream.

With the notion of academic freedom often twisted out of context, hatred towards Jewish students on York’s campus continues to be accepted. Jewish students feel they cannot express their beliefs and values without fear of harassment, intimidation, and even violence.

Adding to the discrimination they face on campus is a kind of masked antisemitism. For example, the student performing the opening ceremony at York’s Multicultural Week Parade wore a T-shirt stating, “Anti-Zionist vibes only.”

For many Jewish students, Zionism is essential for the safety of the Jewish people. But the increasing normalization of anti-Zionism makes them fear expressing this integral part of their Jewish identity.

With the university assuming little or no accountability, students have no choice but to seek support elsewhere. StandWithUs Canada is an affiliate of a 19-year-old international non-profit Israel education organization that is inspired by a love for Israel and the belief that education is the road to peace.

This school year, StandWithUs Canada is grateful to welcome three Emerson Fellows to York to help combat antisemitism: Hailey Merten, Beata Fourmanovskis, and Pablo Gonzalez.

Founded in 2007 with a generous grant from Los Angeles philanthropists Rita and Steve Emerson, the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship is a prestigious one-year program that recruits, trains, educates, and inspires pro-Israel college student leaders on campuses throughout North America, the United Kingdom and Brazil.

In early August, Hailey, Beata, and Pablo participated in the StandWithUs Emerson Conference, held via Zoom with over 100 university students across North America, who learned about Israel, education strategies, legal rights, combating the boycott and other campaigns against Israel, and more.

The sessions were important for Fellows to expand outreach and educate more students about Israel, said Beata, a fourth-year student studying towards her Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree at York’s Schulich School of Business.

“Many students on campus simply do not know about Israel or have no opinion about it. As Fellows, it is important to educate the uninformed so they understand the importance of Israel. One way is by building relationships with other clubs so they can partner with the Jewish community for events,” Beata said.

Pablo Gonzalez, a third-year biotechnology student at York University, took part in the StandWithUs Canada Insight Program. Through this opportunity, Pablo traveled to Israel for 10 days and gained first-hand knowledge about the country’s current geopolitical situation.

Travelling across the country, the undergraduate students met with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim locals and community leaders to learn about their perspectives on current political issues.

“I never visited Israel before, and the diverse ethnic, religious, and political spectrum of the country impressed me,” recalled Pablo. “Through these experiences, I learned so much about the people of Israel, and gained an appreciation for the political nuances and intricacies that are too often described in the media as black-and-white. I left this trip with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Israeli government in ensuring Israel is a safe and welcoming home for all.”

After returning home to Toronto and feeling strongly about wanting to make a positive change based on his experiences in Israel, Pablo applied to the StandWithUs Canada Hispanic Emerson Fellowship. Now, he’s sharing his Israel experiences on campus and educating his peers about the country’s challenges and accomplishments.

Despite strong antisemitic sentiment among some students and faculty at York University, and protests that turned violent last autumn, Pablo said he is “convinced that furthering education about Israel is vital to build a safer campus where we can discuss diverse perspectives with mutual respect.”

Even though the Emerson conference took place virtually, “it had an enormous impact on the students by inspiring and supporting them to continue to educate about Israel,” he said.

Hailey Merten a fourth-year social work student and StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellow at York University, has faced institutionalized discrimination because of her Jewish identity. What she learned from the conference is that she is not alone in the battle.

“I have my StandWithUs Canada family beside me to support me through the good and bad times I may face,” she said. “The understanding that I am no longer alone when dealing with antisemitism on campus is such a relief.”

By organizing events with StandWithUs Canada in which students of differing views on Israel can discuss their opinions constructively and civilly, Pablo, Hailey and Beata look forward to building bridges between communities and focusing on shared solutions on campus.


Steven Greenwood is the executive director of StandWithUs Canada.

Honest: There’s No Films Like These Anyplace

Aug. 31, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

UPDATE: There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace sold out!

The Ontario Jewish Archives and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival are presenting a virtual film series celebrating the life of theatre impresario Ed Mirvish and his beloved discount department store, Honest Ed’s, which closed in 2017.

The series, The Honest Ed’s Experience, which runs until Sept. 2, opened on Aug. 25 with the 75-minute documentary There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, named for one of the bombastic signs on the store’s exterior.

Directed by Lulu Wei, the 2020 film profiles gentrification in Toronto through the history, demolition in 2018, and redevelopment of the Honest Ed block, which encompassed the 68-year-old store and the adjacent Mirvish Village on Markham Street, a row of houses where Mirvish rented inexpensive space to artists and art galleries.

For the documentary, Wei interviewed residents of the area, Bloor and Bathurst, who were affected by the loss of the block.

“Laments for these lost places and their dislocated inhabitants are captured by Wei,” wrote Peter Howell in the Toronto Star. “It’s not a feel-good memory piece about Ed Mirvish, who is seen only briefly in archival footage.” Mirvish died in 2007 at age 92.

Two of the films in the series focus on Mirvish: A Day in the Life of Honest Ed’s and Honest Ed Mirvish: The World’s Most Unusual Shopkeeper. A third film, Honest Frank, is the story of an immigrant who worked in the department store.

Ed Mirvish

A Day in the Life of Honest Ed’s is an eight-minute film made by a group of York University students in 1978. One of the young filmmakers was Larry Weinstein, who went on to make Inside Hana’s Suitcase and Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas.

Honest Ed Mirvish: The World’s Most Unusual Shopkeeper (1998) is John Martin’s 54-minute in-depth portrait of Mirvish, from his beginnings as the child of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Lithuania who ran a small grocery store on Dundas Street, to his being made a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. The film travels with Mirvish to his birthplace of Colonial Beach, Va. He shares stories about the opening of the store in staid postwar Toronto, his 35 years in show business – Mirvish purchased the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963 and refurbished it, revitalizing the Toronto theatre scene – and his creation of Mirvish Village as an artists’ colony.

Honest Frank is a six-minute documentary about filmmaker Danielle Heifa’s uncle, Frank Salerno, who started working at Honest Ed’s department store as a new immigrant in 1959 and retired when the store closed in 2017.

For information, visit ontariojewisharchives.org

Mediating the Situation at York University

Aug. 21, 2020 – By STEPHEN BLOCK

The situation at York University continues to evolve. A brief refresher: In November 2019, a violent confrontation broke out between supporters of Herut Canada, a campus group that had invited active reservists of the Israel Defense Forces to speak against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and protestors affiliated with another campus organization, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, whose members – as the name suggests – are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and BDS, and oppose the occupation.

In light of the melee that autumn night, York president Rhonda Lenton appointed former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell to undertake an independent review. Among Cromwell’s many suggestions was that York consider the definition of antisemitism as formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in developing its policies.

This suggestion itself became a subject of controversy. First, York’s faculty union, YUFA, expressed concern and opposed endorsing the IHRA definition. In its statement, YUFA said:

“While the YUFA Executive opposes antisemitism and all forms of racism and hatred, we see the adoption of the IHRA definition as a potential threat to academic freedom at our university as it can be used to restrict the academic freedom of teachers and scholars who have developed critical perspectives on the policies and practices of the state of Israel.”

Next, while the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism does not clearly state that supporting BDS is antisemitic, a group of York professors who support Israel offered the interpretation that “(t)he IHRA definition …does… associate movements such as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, whose expressed purpose is the destruction of the world’s lone Jewish state) with antisemitism.”

This latter interpretation, in turn, has potential implications for the career of tenured professor Faisal Bhabha at Osgoode Hall Law School. Bhabha, In the course of a panel discussion on June 10, sponsored by Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression (CFE) on the subject of “Fighting Anti-Semitism or Silencing Critics of Israel…?” made the following statement, for which he has received considerable flak:

“I am describing what I understand Zionism to be as an idea and as a practice, which is the suppression of Palestinian human rights for the purpose of ensuring Jewish supremacy, and it is exactly what is being protested against today in the United States against white supremacy…I am equating white supremacy with Jewish supremacy. I think both are equally morally repugnant and deserve to be called out and spoken against.”

It should also be noted that B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre have weighed in on this, B’nai Brith going so far as to begin a petition to have Bhabha removed as a teacher of human rights, appealing directly to Lenton.

The central question is: Does the York situation potentially afford us a way out of the seemingly interminable arguments about “cancel culture” and threats to academic freedom, or could it make things worse?

Championing a definition of antisemitism that would seem to suit one side raises the question of whether it would be more appropriate to deal with this matter through a more formal process of dispute resolution.

Conventional dispute resolution mechanisms involve a neutral or disinterested third party, one often agreed upon by the disputing parties. The parties are then brought to the table, separately or simultaneously, and a mediator is asked to attempt to find a solution satisfactory to both parties. The primary strength of this method is a greater potential for a fair and stable outcome.

In some forms of mediation, an assumption is made that two disputing parties, acting in good faith, have overlapping goals, even if that is not evident to either party. The job of a skilled mediator is to convince the parties that in some respects, they care about the same things. No doubt that in this instance, there are gaps that are currently unbridgeable.

So how about underscoring the idea of making those points of contention the subject of discussion and debate? In that case, it would appear to change the consideration of what is and what is not within the bounds of reasonable discussion. Therefore, the Ryerson panel seemed an appropriate place for such a discussion.

Absent such discussions, the only alternative would seem to be stricter and more restrictive measures, as a dispute is assumed to be irresolvable and thereby dangerous to campus life. It also promotes a de facto policy that disputing parties must be kept separate. A mediated approach would suggest the opposite – that the parties must be brought together, in one way or another, if a workable solution is to be found. Compelling or encouraging them to openly confront the issues under discussion affords the prospect of a display of mutual respect otherwise made impossible in an environment of choose-up-sides tribalism.

In industrial relations, a mediator acceding to demands from one party in a dispute would not be seen as neutral. This is the challenge that Lenton faces in preparing her formal reply.


Stephen Block
Stephen Block

Stephen Block has a PhD in Industrial Relations and Public Affairs from the University of Montreal and Concordia University, and a graduate diploma in Conflict Resolution from Carleton University.