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Published December 14, 2023

Liberal MPs ask universities if calling for genocide of Jews violates school codes

By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

Five Liberal members of Parliament are asking 25 Canadian university presidents to say whether calling for a genocide against Jewish people or the elimination of Israel violates their school policies. 

The letter, shared online by Montreal MP Anthony Housefather, comes amid a rise in antisemitism during the Israel-Hamas war, including on campuses.

Former justice minister David Lametti, fellow Montreal MP Anna Gainey, Winnipeg representative Ben Carr and ex-public-safety minister Marco Mendicino also signed the letter,which they made public on Thursday. 

Housefather and Carr are Jewish, and the letter says all five MPs have been hearing from students in their constituencies who are being harassed by peers or "subjected to hostile environments in some classrooms." 

The heads of U.S. schools have been facing similar questions during recent congressional hearings about antisemitism on campuses. 

Former University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill recently resigned amid controversy after telling lawmakers, when asked repeatedly about calls for genocide, that decisions around what would violate a school's conduct policy are "context-dependent." 

She clarified the next day that such language would be considered harassment or intimidation. 

"We do not believe that any context is necessary to confirm that the call to eradicate an identifiable group constitutes harassment, intimidation and incites hatred, and merits the strongest disciplinary measures available to a university," the letter from MPs reads. 

Earlier in the week, Housefather also asked that the House of Commons justice committee study the issue of rising antisemitism, including at post-secondary institutions. 

The letter says the MPs plan to submit university presidents' responses to a parliamentary committee. 

They are asking Canadian teachers to respond to their question by Jan. 20 and outline steps being taken to protect Jewish students facing "hostile environments." 

"Whereas a university campus should be a safe sanctuary, we hear instead from Jewish students who are afraid to go to campus or certain classes," the letter reads. 

"This is entirely unacceptable."

Canadian universities have struggled with how to manage tensions since the war began. 

In Montreal, McGill University asked a group called Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill to drop the reference to the university from its name after it characterized Hamas's Oct. 7 surprise attacks on Israel as "heroic" on social media. 

Four pro-Palestinian student groups, including the one in question, later pushed back saying they were not celebrating violence but rather "looking at the prospect of liberation."

In late November, the Quebec Superior Court issued an order to temporarily block a McGill University student group from ratifying a policy that a large majority of students approved in a recent referendum.

The policy pressed the school administration to condemn what it called a "genocidal bombing campaign" against Gaza and to cut ties with corporations or institutions that are complicit in "settler-colonialism" or "apartheid." 

An unnamed Jewish student from McGill went to court to challenge the policy, and the case is expected to resume next March.

The MPs do not name a specific school or incident in their letter, but point to recent referendum votes. 

They also write that many students have had to walk through protests "calling for the elimination of the world’s only majority Jewish state." 

Students have also faced "hostile environments" in some classrooms as well as in the form of other student groups and associations.

"Since October 7, we have seen gunshots fired at Jewish schools, fire bombings at Jewish institutions, threats of boycott against Jewish-owned businesses and reports across the country of Jewish students feeling unsafe on their campuses," the letter says. 

"This has been accompanied by a lack of action by university leadership to protect Jewish students."

Carr, Mendicino and Housefather also spoke out this week against Canada's decision to favour a non-binding resolution at the United Nations General Assembly that called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. 

The vote broke from Canada's long-standing policy of voting with Israel at the international body, and the resolution has received criticism from Jewish groups for not including any specific condemnation of Hamas. 

Banner image: Liberal member of Parliament Anthony Housefather talks to reporters as he arrives to a caucus meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2023. 

— With files from Morgan Lowrie and The Associated Press.

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