Howard Levitt: University campuses an unsurprising maelstrom in response to Israel-Hamas war

Howard Levitt

Faculty, staff and students at Toronto’s York University walk out of class, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Attendees rallied in support of the York peace activists/Indigo arrestees put on administrative leave by the senior administration at York University for allegedly being involved in an incident criticizing the chief executive of Chapters Indigo, Heather Reisman. PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS


The Israel-Hamas war has ignited a maelstrom of legal activity in workplaces and, for today’s purposes, on university campuses.


Howard Levitt There are now class-action lawsuits pending against at least three Canadian universities alleging that, for many years, a culture of anti-Semitism has made their campus environments intolerable for Jewish students, most egregiously since Oct. 7. Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) protests and radical leftist student councils passing motions and taking other overt actions against their Jewish members created the tinder which has now ignited.

This is not surprising. The woke movement originated in universities and professors have been intently indoctrinating their students for decades. One reason why Jordan Peterson resigned as a prof at the University of Toronto was his recognition that any student listing him as their advisor would be consigned to academic purgatory, devoid of any prospect of an appointment.


Recent incidents tied to the conflict in Gaza include students who support Israel being physically attacked or barricaded in buildings for their own protection, while others have avoided wearing Jewish symbols, fearful for their physical safety. Jewish students no longer feel at home in many Canadian universities, but the phenomenon is not restricted to Canada. One study — just commissioned jointly by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International — found that nearly three out of every four U.S. Jewish students has experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism since the start of the school year. More surprisingly, over one in three non-Jewish students reported having witnessed or experienced an incident of anti-Semitism since Oct. 7 (some because they were mistaken for being Jewish).

This takes us to an online debate which has upset some in the Canadian legal community.

The Ontario Superior Court building in Toronto.

Professor Faisal Bhabha, an Osgoode Law School professor, who is unapologetic about his support for the Palestinian cause — an unobjectionable position in itself — recently reposted the following post by Max Blumenthal on the platform X (formerly Twitter):


Howard Levitt “Every time the Israeli extermination machine cranks into high gear, U.S. media suddenly fills up with stories of swastikas scrawled on random bathroom stalls and lengthy, painstaking profiles of Jewish students fretting for their safety on leafy campuses that cost $50K a year to attend. The objective is twofold: 1. Change the subject from Israel’s industrial level slaughter of besieged ghetto dwellers to the panic of pampered, pathologically narcissistic ‘community’ that believes it is entitled to a second country at the expense of millions of permanent refugees.”    


And, after describing scenes in Gaza after Israel retaliated against Hamas, he also reposted the following from Mohammed El-Kurd:


“In another world, on university campuses, some Jewish students — coddled by their administrations — cite their fear of a protest chant as an indicator that a Second Holocaust is imminent. It’s not rational, but understandable. They are not feigning: the fear is so real it can conjure the Gestapo in the halls of the Ivy Leagues. Then they are guests on television networks, narrating their harrowing life at the academy. You almost laugh but it isn’t a joke. It’s psychosis.”  

So, we have Jewish university students experiencing real incidents of anti-Semitism, while a professor retweets a post suggesting their fear is almost laughable and, in fact, “psychotic.”


Howard Levitt And not just any professor but a professor of law who teaches legal ethics, a mandatory first year class, fundamentally a course in civility. In other words, an authority and representative of the rule of law in this country.


Is this what law professors should be retweeting? And how would Jewish students feel about such a professor marking their essays?


Jonathan Rosenthal, a part-time Osgoode professor, Law Society bencher and fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, took issue with Bhabha’s posts.


“It is disturbing that as a legal educator you would choose to repost this tweet. Have you no concern for any of your students? Evidently not,” he said in a reply on X directed at Bhabha.


Rosenthal followed up by discouraging students from taking courses taught by Bhabha, to which Bhabha responded: “You’re a first-class bigot.”


Howard Levitt I wrote to Prof. Bhabha, asking him how he thought his Jewish students would react to their fear being considered almost laughable or “psychotic” and to the characterization of them as a “pampered, pathologically narcissistic ‘community.’”

His response was that the passages above were not his own words but passages that he retweeted.


When asked if he thought any of his Jewish students might feel uncomfortable taking his class or having their essays marked by him in light of the reposts, or if they might feel unsafe given the almost mocking references to fears of another Holocaust, he said, “Jewish students have no valid reason to feel unsafe or unwelcome in my classes as Jews.”


“I have had many excellent dealings with students from a wide variety of religions, ethnicities, and political orientations, including those holding political opinions with which I deeply disagree, like Zionism. Students who are open-minded know that I am too. Students who wish to avoid my classes due to their personal prejudices will do so, as they always have.”


He apparently failed to understand how his retweets could make a Jewish student uncomfortable.


I found his calling Rosenthal a “bigot” over the top, so I asked him on what basis he did so. He responded:


Howard Levitt “If Mr. Rosenthal is bent on silencing diverse or dissenting voices, particularly Palestinian voices describing genocidal conditions and western hypocrisy, I’ll call that what I believe it is: racism. If he’s encouraging students to boycott one of the few Canadian Muslim law professors in the country because he doesn’t like my opinions or who I retweet, I’ll call that what I believe it is: Islamophobia.”

I found his statement that Rosenthal reacted adversely to his comments, not because Rosenthal found the comments offensive but because Bhabha was a Muslim rather curious. In fact, Rosenthal advised that he had been unaware that Bhabha was Muslim when he posted his comments.


I also asked Bhabha: “Are you using a shield of academic freedom to promote your own views without concern for its impact on your students? To put it directly, are you concerned about the impact on your students of your retweeting the two posts which I provided you?”


His response: “I am always available to meet with any student pertaining to their interest in, or experience with, taking my course. All are welcome.”


Again, my actual question went unanswered.


It is obvious to me that if Muslims or any other group were referred to in the way that Jews were referred to in his retweets above, there would be sharp and quick justice and much public calumny. Howard Levitt But with Jews, it has become open season with little consequence to the miscreants.


As if to hammer home the prevailing attitude on campus, York University this week suspended three staff members, including one professor, after they were criminally charged in connection to the defacement of a Toronto Indigo bookstore, in opposition to its Jewish founder, Heather Reisman.

                          People attend a march for Gaza rally in support of Palestine in Toronto on Nov. 4.

Let’s hope that York U ensures that this walkout is permanent and a list of those involved is created and circulated so that employers will know not to hire anyone in this group for any job requiring judgment or common sense.


Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada.


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