My reprisal complaint against York University will be adjudicated by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario at hearings scheduled for September 14, 15, 16, 22, 23, and 24 at 655 Bay Street, 14th Floor, Toronto, Tribunal Chair Michael Gottheil presiding. The case centers upon the issue of York University’s longstanding practice – unique among Canadian universities of prohibiting the holding of classes on the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, an accommodation to religious observance accorded the adherents of no other faiths.
My complaint had two parts, discrimination and reprisal. The first has been settled; after a Human Rights Commission investigation found York’s practice to be discriminatory and the Commission decided to refer the matter to the Tribunal for adjudication, York ended the practice. The second part focuses upon the reprisals undertaken by York against me in response to my efforts to end the discrimination.
While the focus of attention in the case has been the practice of religious observances the case has never been about religion but about power. Throughout history those with power in society have privileged their own beliefs and rituals above those of the powerless. My challenge to York’s discriminatory practice was prompted by and taken on behalf of students whose observances were not privileged (Jewish students comprise less than six percent of the York student population). And the challenge has inevitably entailed a confrontation not with religion but with the institutional power behind the discriminatory practice. Over the course of five years the challenge has revealed as never before the domain and dimensions of power at York University.
It has often been noted that those who wield the real power in society are those you cannot talk about. This case talks about them.
The nexus of power disclosed by this challenge consists of collaboration between the highest levels of the York University administration and the country’s leading Zionist organizations: the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) Hillel, the United Israel Appeal/United Jewish Appeal (UIA, UJA) and B’nai B’rith (BB). These organizations claim to represent all Canadian Jews but in reality represent only Jews who support the state of Israel (as opposed to other JewishÂ]member organizations such as Independent Jewish Voices, Not in Our Name, and the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians). Thus these organizations represent Jews who wield social power, in Israel and at York.
In a recorded interview Fiona Crean, the former York Ombudsman and Director of York University’s Centre for Human Rights (currently Ombudsman for the City of Toronto) explained why the York administration continued the blatantly discriminatory practice. She said it was because of the "lobbying "by these outside organizations. But why should York University, Canada’s third largest public university, tolerate such external interference in internal academic affairs. Crean further explained that it was the "money" – the risk of alienating rich donors (contributors to York University, it has been noted, include a who’s who of Jewish philanthropists) and the fear of being attacked by these Organizations as anti-semitic. These same organizations, particularly B’nai B’rith, have lately been hammering human rights agencies, including the Ontario Human Rights Commission as well as the Tribunal, for hearing cases such as this one (the reason perhaps for the eleventh hour withdrawal of the Commission from this Case and Hearing).
In the wake of my ultimately successful efforts to end York’s discriminatory practice I endured reprisal and threat of reprisal from the York administration, acting in league with and in response to pressure from the external Zionist organizations. At the same time through freedom of information requests, discovery, and other means, I have been able to obtain ample documentary evidence of this. At the time of the events outlined in this case I did not know what was happening and reacted and defended myself as best I could. After the fact the discovery process has proved revelatory.
As the philosopher said, the Owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk: we become wise only after the event. I will be presenting my case from this belatedly enlightened perspective, proceeding chronologically, in retrospect, from my first formal request to York’s president to end the discriminatory practice, in September 2004. (The Tribunal has Ordered York’s counsel to call as witnesses the current and former York presidents, as well as the former Senate Chair and Dean of Arts.)
In November 2004, I was publicly attacked by York University, Hillel, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the United Jewish Appeal, and the York University Foundation (York’s fundraising arm) as an anti-semite, a bigot, and a racist. The CJC President publicly defended York’s discriminatory practice regarding religious holidays.
In February 2005, I was threatened with disciplinary action by the Dean of Arts for allegedly requiring students to attend illegal demonstrations. Internal emails indicate the initiative came from the president.
In August 2005, York’s president requested and received a legal analysis by the University Counsel of the possibility of my being charged under the criminal hate crime statute for writing an article entitled "Israel Lobby Loses York". The counsel advised that I would probably not be convicted.
At the start of classes in September 2005 I announced my intention to hold classes on the Jewish holidays to challenge the discriminatory practice. Soon thereafter the national counsel for B’nai B’rith and the director of campus operations of the United Israel Appeal wrote to York’s president expressing concern about my intentions and urging enforcement of York’s established practice. York immediately issued an advisory warning faculty against defying university practice, which the faculty union interpreted as a threat of disciplinary action against me; the union urged me to reconsider my intention to hold classes on the holidays. I changed strategy and decided instead to cancel classes on other religious holidays, as identified by my students. York’s top administrators, including the president, then communicated about the possibility of taking action against me for soliciting information from students about their religion.
In September I learned that a student in one of my classes was collaborating with B’nai B’rith to prevent me from holding classes on the Jewish holidays. He was disruptive and threatening in the classroom. Prompted by concerns of other students, I filed a complaint against the student with York campus security. I later learned that he had filed a human rights complaint against me, in collaboration with B’nai B’rith and York’s Centre for Human Rights. No action was ever taken to investigate my prior security complaint. In January 2006 I received official notice from the Dean of Arts that a human rights complaint had been filed against me by the student and that a formal investigation had been launched.
In June 2006, I learned from a student that my class schedule had been changed without my knowledge. Fully enrolled classes that had for years been scheduled at 11:30AM- 2:30PM on Wednesdays and Thursdays were now scheduled for 8:30-11:30AM Wednesday and 2:30-5:30 Friday afternoon, distinctly unfavorable times for students.
In September 2007, I wrote to the president and the dean of my intentions to hold classes on the Jewish holidays, in light of the fact that the Human Rights Commission Inquiry had found York’s practice of prohibiting classes on those days to constitute discrimination on the basis of creed. I also formally requested that the rooms for my classes be unlocked to allow my classes to proceed. The president referred my letter to the Dean who wrote to me insisting that I give Jewish students special accommodation. When my students and I arrived at our classroom on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, together with a reporter for the Toronto Star, we found the door locked.