On October 7, 2023, our world shifted. There is a tremendous amount of horror, outrage, sadness, and tragedy arising from that day which continues to haunt us all. There have been many reasons to feel abandoned by the non-Jewish world since that day. However, there are also some bright spots.
One bright spot is the Federation’s relationship with the University of Alberta administration. This relationship has its origins in 2016 when three prominent U of A professors retired from teaching. Two highly regarded professors, who had been teaching Jewish studies for many years, Professor Frances Landy and Ehud Ben Zvi, and a third, Professor Andrew Gow, who had also contributed academically to Jewish-themed study in the history department, all retired nearly concurrently. The U of A, under funding pressures, did not plan to renew any of those professor positions. We were facing a complete loss of Jewish studies themed courses at the U of A.
Discussions were initiated with then U of A Dean of Arts, Lesley Cormack, to raise funds to support a Jewish Studies professor at the U of A permanently. Although the goal was ambitious, with support of generous Federation donors as well as the Irving and Dianne Kipnes Foundation and the Belzberg Family Foundation, this goal was achieved and culminated in the appointment of Dr. Peter Sabo as the first Belzberg Lecturer at the U of A in 2018.
What began as a point of concern for our community led to a productive and successful donor relationship with the U of A.
This relationship gave the Federation a voice with the U of A when the issue of the problematic Ukrainian endowment came to light in the summer and fall of 2023. The U of A engaged with the Federation about this issue and has continued to do so. As a result of that engagement, the university is undergoing an internal audit of all its endowments and re-evaluating its process for new endowments. We have suggested that the U of A consider making use of endowment funds to support Holocaust education. The purpose of the endowed funds, as it has been described to us, was to support topics in Ukrainian history. The Holocaust is a part of Ukrainian history, so this could work. This suggestion was well received and is being considered.
A meeting had been scheduled for October 11 to continue discussions regarding the status of hiring a new Jewish Studies professor (Dr. Sabo moved and took a job elsewhere leaving the position open) and to continue discussions about the problematic Ukrainian endowments. That meeting went ahead but, as you can imagine, that agenda was dominated instead by campus antisemitism.
October 7 initiated a tsunami of antisemitic statements and activity at universities throughout North America. Although the U of A did not suffer some of the most egregious antisemitic activity which plagued other North American campuses, there were numerous troubling incidents at the university campus including a U of A professor who appeared on a CNN broadcast shortly after October 7 who said that the horrific violence committed by Hamas was justified resistance, to give one example.
Prior to October 7, Federation’s relationship with the University of Alberta administration was a productive donor relationship. After October 7, that relationship transitioned to include an advisory role. Increasingly, the administration is seeking our input into issues of antisemitism raised on campus.
Currently, we meet approximately monthly with the U of A administration. Generally, we set the agenda but welcome their input. In between meetings, we maintain email communications for time sensitive topics.
The firing of the director of the Sexual Assault Centre was an example of how the relationship has evolved. We were in constant email communication with the administration, first flagging the issue, then consulting on their communications. While it was their decision to fire the director, we believe we helped clarify to them the harm this director’s conduct represented. As a reminder, the director signed an open letter which, amongst other things, denied that Israeli women were sexually assaulted by Hamas terrorists, describing those claims as “unverified”.
The Federation has convened a committee to address antisemitism on campuses in Edmonton, including U of A as well as MacEwan. That committee has now met three times and continues to meet regularly and as needed. It is composed of many well-respected professors from both institutions, alumni, Hillel representatives, students and others committed to advocating for our community. The committee mandate is to share information and explore strategies to address and combat campus antisemitism.
The committee is currently considering options to address problematic social media statements or posters published by professors, academic staff or certain student-funded groups. The aim is to curb statements published by students’ groups or professors which contain antisemitic tropes, false or inaccurate claims, or present unreasonably biased perspectives on the Israel Hamas war. The committee intends to be selective and strategic in advancing any complaints or legal process. We have also offered our assistance to the university to respond to the letter from Members of Parliament challenging Canadian universities to advise how they are addressing campus antisemitism.
Our primary point of contact is Dr. Verna Yiu, recently named Provost and VP Academic. Dr. Robert Wood, current Dean of Arts, Elan MacDonald, VP External Relations and Jeannie Wood, assistant to the President, Bill Flanagan, typically attend our meetings as well. Stacey Leavitt-Wright and I represent the Federation. Stacey and I have also met with President Bill Flanagan, and Kate Chisholm, the Chair of the Board of Governors in December. All those meetings have been productive. At all those meetings, the U of A representatives have shown interest and insight into the problem of campus antisemitism. Bill Flanagan made it clear, completely unsolicited by us, that were he asked, he would not hesitate to confirm that calling for genocide against Jews not only breaches campus code of conduct but also hate speech laws.
It has been gratifying to see genuine commitment from the people we have been dealing with at the U of A administration to address and curb rising antisemitism. There are limits as to what the administration can do and change to an institution of its size takes time and patience. In recent meetings with the administration, I have challenged the university to become a leader in addressing campus antisemitism. I am personally hopeful they can rise to that challenge.