Debunking Politicians’ Falsities About The York University Protest
On November 20, an event took place on York University campus that quickly became international news.
According to mainstream media and far-right sources alike, the incident went as follows: the Jewish community at York held an event and were made to feel in danger after violent, antisemitic outside groups protested in an attempt to shut it down.
This narrative was spread on official channels by the prime minister, Ontario’s premier, Toronto’s mayor, at least two MPs and two MPPs, a city councillor and the leader of the federal Conservative party, all within a couple days.
However, every component of the narrative is false, and it has further criminalized pro-Palestine organizing.
Here’s what really happened, with each component of the false narrative debunked.
The Involvement of the Jewish Community
Nearly every tweet from the politicians tweeting about the event claimed the “Jewish community,” or some variation of the phrase, was behind the event.
The event was hosted by Herut Canada, a group associated with the former Herut Party in Israel. As journalist Dimitri Lascaris, who has compiled many of the sources to come, noted, Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, among other Jewish intellectuals, called Herut “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”
Herut Canada’s spokesperson, Lauren Isaacs, told Canadian Jewish News in April that the group was founded in 2019 explicitly for the purpose of spreading “unapologetic Zionism” in Toronto, as a countermeasure to groups critical of Israel to which she believes they’re “losing Jews.” Herut Canada has also positioned itself against other pro-Zionist groups in Toronto, seeking to promote their own version of the ideology.
One member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada called the group a “tiny, extremist faction within the right-wing white Jewish community.”
For further context, according to Isaacs even Hillel Ontario, a student organization dedicated in part to “inspiring” Jewish students to make an “enduring commitment” to Israel, asked for the event not to happen, calling it “inflammatory.”
So, while some Jewish people did organize the event, it was hardly representative of the broader Jewish community, and in fact was hosted by an organization created to compete with existing groups.
Moreover, the narrative spread by politicians completely erased anti-Zionist Jews, as is often the case, many of whom took part in protesting the event.
A Jewish Event
None of the tweets from politicians about the incident actually mentioned any details of the event. As such, the average person reading them would think it was some sort of innocuous cultural or religious event held by a Jewish group on campus.
In reality, Herut Canada invited the group “Reservists on Duty” to speak about “BDS” and the “Arab-Israeli conflict.” Veterans of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) created the group in 2015 due to a “duty” they felt they had to “expose and counter the BDS movement.” The group has received high-level support from the Israeli army, and has also made an explicit effort to condemn Israeli groups documenting human rights abuses by the IDF, of which there is an endless supply.
As such, this was hardly a religious or cultural event, but rather a chance for army veterans to share a political message with the goal of recruiting people to militant Zionism.
The conflation of Judaism and Zionism is widely cited as a form of antisemitism, and yet this is exactly what politicians supposedly concerned about it have done by labeling a fringe Zionist event as a primarily Jewish one instead.
Outsider vs. Insider
Media coverage of the event, as well as tweets from politicians, almost unanimously referred to those organizing, attending or supporting the event as “members of the York community” or some other similar phrase.
This is true in some sense. Isaacs, for example, is a York student, and Herut Canada has student club status at York, though it was initially denied such by the student government and only received it, according to the National Post, due to pressure from the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
However, there were also many non-York students there supporting the event, including members of the Jewish Defence League (JDL), a militant group the FBI called a “right-wing terrorist group” and “violent extremist Jewish organization” in 2001. In recent years, the JDL has incited violence; attacked journalists; terrorized marginalized communities; been investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) on suspicions they were planning to bomb a Palestinian community centre; brutally assaulted an elderly Palestinian man in what has been labelled by authorities as a hate crime.
York University was aware of the group’s plans to attend the event, and the Office of the General Counsel of York University sent a letter to the JDL giving them formal warning that if they engaged in “threats and intimidation” they would be asked to leave campus.
None of the tweets from the politicians mentioned the JDL’s presence on campus. On the other hand, media coverage often depicted those protesting the event as outsiders.
For example, the Toronto Sun’s notoriously incompetent Joe Warmington asked, “Who are these protesters? Who funds them? Do they have criminal pasts?”
In reality, as the name of the group that organized the protest, Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York (SAIA), implies, accounts from the ground suggest most of those protesting were students. The group had also met with York security beforehand, as required by the university’s rules and procedures.
Regardless, the effect of Warmington’s article, and others like it, is that a group of what appeared to be mostly racialized students have been cast as outsiders that didn’t belong, despite having every right to be there.
Every single tweet from one of the politicians discussing the event contained the allegation that antisemitism took place during the incident. Most of them fail to specify why they believe that to be the case.
One of the tweets that does, from Michael Levitt, Member of Parliament for York Centre, claims there were “hateful antisemitic chants.”
On social media, some have claimed protesters chanted “Go back to the ovens!” If this did occur, it would absolutely be a despicable act of antisemitism. However, there’s no proof it did.
The claim appears to have originated in a Jerusalem Post article, and then went viral based on a tweet with a video attached. I, among countless others, listened to the video several times, and did not hear the chant. I’d invite you to do the same. Instead, I heard chants such as “Free, free Palestine/ Occupation is a crime!” and another chant I’ll discuss later. Despite the hundreds of other videos taken at the event, I’m not aware of a single one put forward where the chant described by the Jerusalem Post can be heard. Many others who were there also state they didn’t hear the chant at any point.
Ultimately, it is almost impossible to prove that the chant didn’t occur at any point in the event, but should be possible and easy to prove it did if that is the case. No one has done so.
The other supposedly hateful chant pointed to was, “Viva, viva, intifada!” For example, a CP24 article on the event states the chant was a “reference to armed uprisings in the Palestinian territories that have included suicide bombings targeting civilians.”
In reality, while usage of the term “intifada” can refer to two specific historical events, it is also widely used to denote the fight against Israeli apartheid, in all forms, that continues to this day. For example, a well known pro-Palestine publication is called “Electronic Intifada,” which employs Jewish editorial team members and writers, and has never launched a suicide attack.
Moreover, the event being protested featured former IDF soldiers. As such, the use of the chant is completely reasonable, considering the IDF has played a significant role in enabling Israeli apartheid.
The only way the chant is not acceptable, of course, is if you conflate opposing Israel with antisemitism. This is exactly what the politicians have done, and in fact are trying to do legally as well.
In 2016, for example, the House of Commons voted to formally condemn BDS. Among those who voted in favour of the motion were Michael Levitt, Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer, who all issued statements labeling the protest at York as antisemitic.
In January, Trudeau told a crowd he will “continue to condemn the BDS movement” and categorized it as a new form of antisemitism.
In July, the Canadian government adopted a non-binding definition of antisemitism that will, according to the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, “serve to severely chill political expressions of criticism of Israel as well as support for Palestinian rights.” The group claims that the definition is “inconsistent with the values underlying the Charter of Rights and Freedom and would greatly narrow the scope of political expression in Canada”
Politicians in Canada have clearly expressed their interest in conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. So, with no evidence any antisemitism took place at the protest, it’s clear their claim of such is based on the fact that students dared to protest the pro-Israel event at all.
Finally, those protesting the event were portrayed as violent thugs by politicians and the media. There certainly were acts of violence at the event, but who was responsible?
CUPE 3903, SAIA, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the York University Graduate Students’ Association and York Federation of Students, among several other groups, all released statements alleging violence came from those supporting the event.
This included a teaching assistant being knocked unconscious and being concussed as a result, a marshal choked with a scarf, several students being spat at and shoved, Palestinian flags being stolen to be used as weapons or urinated on, and racist and homophobic chants being used. Moreover, others have pointed to JDL members allegedly planning the violence in advance, and also celebrating it after the fact, including gloating about the person knocked unconscious.
None of this was mentioned by any of the politicians, or by the vast majority of media coverage of the event, after the fact.
As I’ve pointed out, politicians misrepresented the event, and have motivation to do so to appease lobby groups and supporters, and for ideological reasons as well. Media have no such excuse.
Individuals or organizations, not including York University staff, were quoted on 26 occasions throughout these articles and videos, and 23 of the occasions quoted people defending the event and smearing protesters. But these quotes didn’t come from mere bystanders, and instead were typically from groups such as B’Nai Birth, or politicians. This is gross incompetence at best, intentional misrepresentation at worst.
As a result of politicians and media coverage, an event hosted by a fringe Zionist group, featuring veterans of a human-rights abusing army, for the intent of spreading a political ideology, which was defended by members of an FBI-categorized extremist group who used violence, was instead portrayed as peaceful Jewish people being attacked by violent antisemitic thugs.
The only push back to this narrative among Canadian media sources has been by independent journalists such as Dimitri Lascaris, who compiled many of the sources my article refers to, and an article at Canadian Dimension, a leftist publication. I haven’t seen any politicians fighting back against this false narrative.
Due to this, pro-Palestine activists will continue to be demonized with complete impunity. For example, B’nai Birth has recently launched a petition to have SAIA’s student club status revoked, based on some of the falsehoods debunked in this article.
Those coming out to protest the event were brave, and it is a shame they have been smeared.