Canadian University Student Union Apologizes for Refusing to Support Kosher Food Campaign

A University of Toronto students' union has apologized after a Jewish student group accused it of anti-semitism over its refusal to support a campaign to make kosher food available on campus.

Hillel UofT, the Canadian university's branch of the international Jewish campus organization Hillel, said a student had reached out to the University of Toronto Graduate Students' Union (UTGSU) to ask for its support in its "Kosher Forward" campaign.

The student union had responded by saying that it couldn't support the campaign because Hillel UofT had conducted "pro-Israel" activities, Hillel UofT said in a statement posted on its Facebook page Friday.

It said UTGSU had responded saying its executive committee "strives to abstain from this type of discourse in order to ensure the will of the membership is accurately reflected in any votes on these motions."

Hillel UofT slammed the student union's response and accused it of anti-semitism for "conflating the Jewish fight for kosher food with our support of the Jewish state."

In a statement, it said: "Hillel strongly condemns this type of rhetoric, which associates support of the state of Israel with a campaign to make campus more accessible for Jewish students.

"The attempt by this student body to change the conversation away from the needs of Jewish students to their support for the Jewish state is a blatant attempt to marginalize Jewish students connected to Hillel simply for their identity."

The statement added that by not supporting a campaign "undertaken by a religious minority group on campus to gain access to food they can eat, the UTGSU is failing in its mandate to represent the interests of minority groups on campus."

According to Hillel UofT, the response from the UTGSU was influenced by its stance on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The UTGSU voted to support the BDS movement against Israel in 2012. On its website, the BDS movement says it "works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law."

But Hillel UofT said the UTGSU had "violated" its mandate to support Jewish students by conflating "the largest representative of Jewish students on campus with the actions of the Israeli government."

Citing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-semitism as holding Jewish people or Jewish organizations collectively responsible for the Israeli government's actions, it added: "The inability to separate Jewish individuals from the Israeli government's actions is, indeed, a form of antisemitism. The UTGSU has made it explicit that it would rather see Jewish students' needs go unmet than to support Hillel UofT in its equity campaign."

On Sunday, the UTGSU's executive committee issued an apology for "unintentionally" causing harm to the university's Jewish community.

In a statement on Facebook, it said that the UTGSU's external commissioner had responded to an email requesting support for the "Kosher Forward" campaign by "insinuating" that the UTGSU Executive Committee might be reluctant to bring the motion to its general council or board of directors because of Hillel being "pro-Israel."

The statement said the external commissioner "did not intend to do harm in using this language but recognizes that this is not an excuse for the harm that the wording of this response caused" caused to the student it was sent to as well as other Jewish students at the university.

It added that the union has not deliberated on the request, but said it had reached out to the student, Hillel UofT to request a meeting about how to remedy the situation and prevent future harm to Jewish students on campus. "The UTGSU Executive Committee is deeply sorry for the harm that this response has caused," it added.

In a statement to Newsweek, a University of Toronto spokesperson said: "The graduate student union is an autonomous student organization that acts independently from the University of Toronto.

"All such autonomous organizations express their own views, not the views of the university, but are required by university policy to operate in an open, accessible and democratic manner and to allow a diversity of perspectives to be heard. We have written to the group to remind them of this obligation."

In a statement to Newsweek, Rob Nagus, Hillel UofT's senior director, said the student union's apology was "underwhelming."

"The apology issued by the UTGSU in regards to this issue is a start but is quite underwhelming," he said. "It does not address the antisemitic nature of their original response. We welcome the chance to meet with members of the UTGSU Executive Committee to discuss this further, and hope they will take this matter more seriously and stand firmly against antisemitism in all forms on campus."

Marc Newburgh, CEO of Hillel Ontario, added that the UTGSU is the only student union in Canada which funds a BDS committee. "Ever since this committee was created, Hillel UofT and Hillel Ontario have worked tirelessly to stand against their efforts to promote divisiveness on campus and to target those who identify as Zionists," he told Newsweek.

Newburgh claimed that when BDS is promoted on campus, it "creates an unsafe environment for Jewish students." He added: "The UTGSU'S response is a clear example of where BDS has crossed the line into antisemitism in its effect, if not in its intent, and why those who stand against antisemitism need to stand against BDS."

Newsweek has contacted the UTGSU for further comment.

Update: This article has been updated to include a statement from the University of Toronto and comments from Hillel UofT and Hillel Ontario.

university of Toronto
Stock photo: University of Toronto campus. The University of Toronto's Graduate Students' Union has apologized over its refusal to support Hillel UofT's campaign to make kosher food available on campus. Susan Hollan/Getty Images