Last month, the Algemeiner, a New York based Jewish newspaper, published their first annual list of the “Worst Colleges for Jewish Students, 2016.” The University of Toronto came in third place, preceded by Vassar College and Columbia University. I have to be honest—I don’t read the Algemeiner, and I didn’t pay much attention to the ensuing controversy when this list was initially published. Despite my indifference, my Facebook feed was telling me a different story. My friends at Columbia were not happy—their responses ranged from mocking posts to indignant think pieces. Jewish activists were hotly debating the article, and renewed calls for Jewish activism on campus grew louder. As the controversy grew, so did my interest in this supposedly outrageous list, and I began to look into the issue more closely.
After reading the Algemeiner article and delving deeper into their investigative process, I came to the conclusion that U of T does not deserve its designation. I believe that the list was poorly researched considering the editors limited their contact to a handful of students scattered across only some of the forty campuses in question. They also based much of their research on data formerly collected by Brandeis University and the AMCHA Initiative, “a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America.”
Although this data was aggregated by reputable sources, I don’t believe that it paints an altogether accurate picture of Jewish life at U of T because of their particular focus on American institutions. Though often taken as one “North American” Jewish community, Canadian Jews are actually quite different than their American counterparts in many ways, and their experiences cannot simply be grouped together.
So how did the Algemeiner come up with their final list? The preamble to the list outlines the basic factors taken into account, including “the number of anti-Semitic incidents on each campus; the number of anti-Israel groups…the Jewish student population…the success or lack thereof of Israel boycott efforts…”
To first address the presence of anti-Semitic groups on campus: I believe that they are small in number, and their influences do not have a harmful effect on a Jewish student’s day to day life. Every day that I spend at U of T, I feel safe and, more importantly, at home. I’m not here to convince anyone that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist on campus (I assure you – it does – especially in more radical activist circles), but rather, I wish to counter the narrative presented in this list. I can only speak to my experiences at U of T, but I am confident in my university’s commitment to countering anti-Semitism.
In terms of my personal experience, I’m happy to say that my time at U of T has been overwhelmingly positive—the non-Jewish friends that I have made are curious and, more importantly, respectful of my Judaism. These friends and acquaintances have offered to send notes when I miss class for Jewish holidays, they inquire about traditions and specific Jewish rituals and laugh with me at Jewish jokes. These positive encounters extend to my professors and instructors—I have always been accommodated when necessary, and I feel welcomed.
Beyond these personal experiences, I should note the tireless work done by Hillel Ontario on a daily basis. Hillel, the foremost organization for Jewish students on campus, provides essential services that enhance every Jewish experience. I would like to stress that Hillel does far more than provide Kosher meals for students every evening; they are at the forefront of outreach efforts to further integrate and connect students of all faiths and backgrounds on campus. Hillel U of T is constantly innovating—they work to improve every Jewish student’s experience while expanding and nurturing relationships that raise awareness and promote dialogue.
Although I am optimistic, I am not naive. In the now infamous list, the editors point to a spike in anti-Semitic vandalism on the U of T St. George campus as a harbinger of general hostilities directed towards Jewish students. While these acts of vandalism are disturbing to say the least, I hesitate to assign these incidents more weight than they deserve. As a Jewish student, I feel more afraid and threatened when Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) activists target the State of Israel, my ancestral homeland, than I do when I encounter a flagrant display of anti-Semitism in the form of a swastika painted on the Medical Science building sign. At least the vandals (unlike the BDS campaign) do not hide their true anti-Semitic intentions beneath a guise of social justice.
But in truth, I digress. The unfriendly elements on campus towards Jewish students are a small minority, and I believe that Jewish students at U of T have had similarly enriching experiences. While there is always work to be done, especially to counter virulent anti-Israel rhetoric, the Algemeiner list is not especially indicative of these issues. The problems on campus are far more nuanced, and I do not see them as barriers to my overall success as a Jewish student at the University of Toronto.
Image curtesy of Chiao Sun.