How anti-Palestinian racism led to a ‘crisis’ at TMU’s law school

On October 20, 2023 — when Israel had already killed over 4,000 Palestinians in Gaza — one sixth of the law students at TMU’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law sent the Dean a petition expressing “solidarity with Palestine,” while also describing Hamas’ attacks on Israel as “war crimes.”

Then, on January 13, 2024 — with over 23,000 Palestinians killed — the Toronto Star reported on the “crisis” that the petition supposedly created (meanwhile, conservative media ran endless op-eds misrepresenting the students’ views, even claiming this group of mostly women students “endorsed rape”).

As the only professor at the law school vocally supporting the students/Palestine, I have first-hand insight into subtle yet significant flaws in the Star’s investigation. And because the Star was unwilling to publish either an op-ed or letter in response, I have, instead, published this essay with Ricochet, which has welcomed pro-Palestinian voices to its opinion pages.

TMU was not “turned” into a “battleground,” as the Star reports. Rather, the students were responding to already established anti-Palestinian bias at the law school.

First, the Star fails to adequately scrutinize outlandish interpretations projected onto the petition. The backlash against the students — which has included death threats, lost employment, potential expulsion, doxing, and harassment — is essentially predicated on the claim that their petition celebrates Hamas’ October 7 attack. This is false. The students call the attack a “war crime” (hardly an “endorsement”). Nor is the attack “justified” anywhere in their petition. Rather, it is explained, not excused, by Israel’s decades-long occupation and apartheid.

The students wrote that they “condemn any organization that only condemned Hamas’ recent war crimes killing 1,300 Israelis, but has been and/or remains silent on the historic and ongoing war crimes committed by Israel.”

They are not celebrating war crimes; they are critiquing western hypocrisy.

The students also wrote that they support “all forms of Palestinian resistance” — with armed resistance, I note, being an established right under international law. But supporting the different modes of resistance (diplomatic, economic, even armed) is not supporting any instance of resistance, let alone instances of violence that do not qualify as “resistance” in the first place. In the same way, one can like “all forms of art” (poetry, sculpture, even graffiti), but dislike specific artists or pieces.

Careful attention to the students’ actual words is vital, especially because a recognized form of anti-Palestinian racism specifically includes “defaming Palestinians and their allies with slander such as being inherently antisemitic [or] a terrorist threat/sympathizer.”

Indeed, this is the precise slander the students are confronting, and which rigorous reporting should have interrogated. The law school “unequivocally condemn[ed] the sentiments of Antisemitism” in the students’ supposed “promot[ion] [of] terrorism” (with “terrorism” itself, coded as anti-Palestinian).

Worse, one lawyer quoted in the National Post even hyperbolically called the students’ words an “act of terror” — when, in reality, the students were merely critiquing western hypocrisy and affirming Palestinian liberation.

Toronto professors and post-secondary faculty marching in support of Palestinians.

Joshua Sealy-Harrington

This backlash, then, reflects the uncharitable interpretation that pro-Palestinian advocacy relentlessly confronts, that pro-Israel groups actively lobby for, and that effective journalism must critique. Otherwise, media simply amplifies anti-Palestinian rhetoric, with dire consequences.

Labeling the students “terrorists” seriously threatens their physical safety, especially those who are visibly Muslim. And labeling pro-Palestinian expression “antisemitic” — and investigating that expression as misconduct — fundamentally compromises “the most basic idea of a university” (as academics at TMU and across Canada have observed).

Second, by adopting the framing of “a crisis,” the Star’s reporting assumes that before October 7 (in Palestine) — or before October 20 (at TMU) — there was peace concerning Palestine. This, too, is false.

Prior to October 7, “was one of the most violent years in Palestine in more than a decade.” And on October 20, TMU was not “turned” into a “battleground,” as the Star reports. Rather, the students were responding to already established anti-Palestinian bias at the law school. It is a faculty supposedly committed to equity and diversity, but with zero Arab scholars, a refugee scholar who, in her own words, is “brutally ignorant” about Palestine (“the world’s longest-standing protracted refugee crisis”), an Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies who “liked” a tweet posted by the Israeli Defence Forces dehumanizing Palestinians as “human shields,” and a senior administration, which “unequivocally condemn,” not four months of Israeli bombardment, but the only public statement from our academic community supporting Palestinian liberation.

Indeed, the petition directly responded to the Dean’s October 11 statement, which called, not even for a ceasefire, but “sustainable de-escalation,” and which named none of the settler-colonial context in Palestine — something other faculties have done with ease.

Labeling the students “terrorists” seriously threatens their physical safety, especially those who are visibly Muslim. And labeling pro-Palestinian expression “antisemitic” — and investigating that expression as misconduct — fundamentally compromises “the most basic idea of a university.”

Third, the Star’s reporting itself reflects anti-Palestinian media bias: it describes “Hamas’s October 7 deadly incursion into Israel” (active voice) versus “mass displacement and death in Gaza” (passive voice). And it minimizes the carnage experienced by Palestinians, qualifying the death toll as only being “according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry,” despite the health ministry’s demonstrated record of accurate reporting.

Further, the Star’s reporting neutralizes the profound asymmetry of violence between a U.S.-backed nuclear power and a ghettoized population by referring to a “textbook case of genocide” as “the fighting,” the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and the “violence.” The story also cherry picks a chorus of Jewish individuals who consider the petition antisemitic, yet fails to disclose that Independent Jewish Voices — a Jewish organization with demonstrated expertise on antisemitism — concluded otherwise, and called on TMU to retract its “baseless accusations” that the students’ “support for Palestinian life is somehow emblematic of support for terrorism.”

The Star was specifically provided with this public statement during its investigation, yet chose to selectively exclude the statement from its reporting.

The petition is, of course, critical of Israel – surely, an understandable impulse given the “graveyard of children” and “medical apocalypse” Israel has recently created. The petition even calls Israel – but also Canada – a “settler colony,” a trite proposition in decolonial scholarship.
Collapsing anti-Zionism with antisemitism, however, perpetuates racial injustice most importantly for Palestinians, but also by complicating the ability for everyone who opposes antisemitism — including the TMU students, myself, and anti-Zionist Jews — to actually identify and challenge antisemitism.

Anti-Palestinian bias is not limited to the Star’s reporting, here — it is, rather, pervasive in Canada. And this ubiquitous yet invisible bigotry, as other recent controversies demonstrate, is cultivated by lack of scrutiny and transparency. Only a lack of scrutiny can interpret the students’ petition as glorifying rape, just as only a lack of scrutiny can support the claim that pro-Palestine protesters recently “targetted” a Jewish hospital when they simply marched past it (this is, I note, a particularly egregious misrepresentation in the context of Israel’s systematic — and real — “war on hospitals” in Gaza).

And TMU’s investigation of its students lacks transparency, without any specificity concerning which passages of their petition were supposedly antisemitic, or any disclosure of what antisemitism definition is even being relied upon.
In a similar vein, the Supreme Court of Canada recently lacked transparency — and indeed, gave contradictory explanations — about what “controversial” social media posts on Palestine supposedly warranted the last-minute disinvitation of Black experts from speaking at the Court about anti-Black racism.

Marching in downtown Toronto in solidarity with Palestinians.

Joshua Sealy-Harrington

Lack of scrutiny and transparency — or worse, “slander and intimidation” — must be tested by academics, journalists, and lawyers, not uncritically repeated. Otherwise, we simply become stenographers of imperialism, not seekers of truth, despite being uniquely positioned to hold powerful institutions to account.

The students spoke out on day 14 of Israel’s onslaught. It is now day 143, and the figures from Palestine are harrowing: more than 38,000 killed (including over 14,000 children); more than 71,000 injured; 2,000,000 displaced; children as young as five saying “they would prefer to die”; more than 10 children losing legs daily; 1,000 children undergoing amputations without anesthesia; 1,000,000 displaced women and girls, many making improvised menstrual products from cut up tents or enduring C-sections without anesthesia as babies are “delivered into hell”; almost 2,000,000 Palestinians on the brink of starvation, many eating weeds to survive.

Will we really look back on this incalculable terror — in six months, in one year, in three years — and think that TMU students spoke out too forcefully against it? Will that really be what we prioritize? Or will we belatedly appreciate that these students were simply throwing whatever sand they could in the “gears of genocide” (an ethical commitment few courageous journalists have joined them in doing).

As Reverend Munther Isaac passionately orated in Bethlehem on December 23, two days before Israel’s Christmas Day raids:

Your charity and your words of shock after the genocide won’t make a difference … we will not accept your apology after the genocide … I want you to look in the mirror and ask: “Where was I when Gaza was going through a genocide?”

I am honoured to join these TMU students who, unlike their faculty, their administration, or much of their future profession, spoke out vocally against genocide when it involved the greatest personal cost, but also, when it mattered most to the struggle for racial justice.

Palestinian writer and poet Mohammed El-Kurd urges us to “be a little bit more brave, and a little bit more courageous… because when you put things into perspective, a smear campaign does not compare to air strikes.”

These students are alone at TMU law in answering El-Kurd’s call. And given TMU’s own marketing — a university seeking students with “grit” and a law school courting students with a “passion for social justice” — these students were, ironically, answering their own institution’s call, as well.

This was the marketing of the law school that condemned the students’ anti-genocide petition as antisemitic: grit, until genocide. This was the marketing of the university that is now investigating those students for potential expulsion: passion, until Palestine. This is, in other words, an institution crumbling under the weight of its unbearable contradictions.

What is most significant about this saga at TMU law, however, is not students bravely supporting Palestine — instead, it is how, despite Israel’s systematic attacks on Palestinian universities and journalists, both our academy and media have failed to perform their essential democratic function when it is needed most: during a genocide that Canada is providing diplomatic and military support to.

I am honoured to join these TMU students who, unlike their faculty, their administration, or much of their future profession, spoke out vocally against genocide when it involved the greatest personal cost, but also, when it mattered most to the struggle for racial justice.

Finally, four months after the students’ prescient October 20 petition, Canada has caught up to the students’ supposedly antisemitic call for a ceasefire, and the world has caught up to the students’ supposedly antisemitic identification of (at least plausible) genocide. But having benefited from decades of impunity, Israel remains on the verge of a catastrophic ground offensive in Rafah (the final so-called “safe zone” of Gaza — now, a “nightmare”).

I am devastated by what atrocities will almost certainly unfold in the coming days and weeks, leading into Ramadan no less. And I am furious at how western governments — aided by our newspapers, courts, universities, and prominent jurists — have directly facilitated those very atrocities. But I am inspired by the resilience of Palestinian resistance — the only material force mitigating against the annihilation and expulsion of the Palestinian people — and I am genuinely moved by the massive multi-racial and anti-colonial protests supporting Palestinian freedom that have spread across the globe.

While various institutions have doubled down in the face of unquestionable Israeli atrocities, much of civil society has seen through the shameless propaganda and understood, with moral clarity, the urgency of material activism for Palestine in this crucial inflection point of colonial injustice.

To those who have spoken out, often with significant personal cost: thank you. And to those who remain silent, sincerely consider Palestine’s recent statement before the International Court of Justice regarding the illegality of Israel’s decades-long occupation:

Silence is not an option. As the immortal Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “in silence, we become accomplices.” But, he assured us, “when we speak, every word has the power to change the world.”

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé warns that “the end of a project like Zionism is one of the worst periods for the colonized people.” Indeed, projected deaths in Gaza over the next six months reach as high as 259,680. And, in the age of social media, we are all witnesses to this agonizing history, today.

Priyamvada Gopal, a postcolonial and critical race scholar, puts it aptly: “Whatever our future excuses, ‘We didn’t know’ cannot be one.” So please join us in calling, marching, and fighting for a free Palestine. We are strongest, together.

And as Yipeng Ge — another Canadian student facing similar reprisal for supporting Palestinian liberation — observes: “We are all freer when Palestine is free.”

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