York and the York Federation of Students (YFS) are facing a $15 million class action lawsuit due to decades of alleged antisemitic incidents on campus.
The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs have been made to feel unsafe on campus, as they have been silenced, harassed, threatened with violence, and forced to hide their Jewish identity.
The plaintiffs argue the university failed to provide sufficient staff training on harassment, as well as neglected and failed to deal with antisemitic incidents that violated York’s non-discrimination policies. The case represents current students, recent alumni, and attendees from 1998-2021.
“The main thing we’re hoping to accomplish is change. To be clear, we’re asking for York University to uphold their code of conduct. We’re not asking them to do anything that they’re not empowered to do. They have a code of conduct, they should be enforcing their code of conduct,” says Sandra Zisckind, managing partner at Diamond and Diamond Law LLP and York alumnus.
According to Diamond and Diamond, the plaintiffs are seeking immediate action to ensure their safety and to prevent future incidents. Zisckind says the lawsuit is currently in its preliminary stages. The lawsuit has not been proven in court yet.
“York University has been apprised of the situation and it has failed to do things for decades. This is not a new thing. It’s just an escalating thing,” adds Zisckind.
She gives several examples of incidents, including a previous one where Jewish students at Hillel were forced to barricade themselves, while other students “banged on the door and threatened” them. She says the students responsible for the aggressive behaviour faced no disciplinary measures from York.
In addition, Zisckind cites a recent instance of antisemitism in Vari Hall, where some graffiti read: “Shoot a jew in the head.”
The York administration has acknowledged that they have received the message from Diamond and Diamond to pursue a class-action lawsuit against the university.
“The University would like to affirm that we unequivocally condemn all forms of discrimination and hate, including antisemitism and Islamophobia. York is committed to providing inclusive campus environments where community members feel safe and welcomed without fear of intimidation or harassment,” says Yanni Daognas, York’s media relations & external communications officer.
Dagonas also mentions the Initiative on Open and Respectful Dialogue made by York’s office of the president — it refers to York’s zero tolerance for discrimination and its priority for campus safety.
When asked about including the YFS in the lawsuit, Zisckind responds: “YFS has been a perpetrator of a lot of the antisemitic rhetoric and hate on campus, and they have gone unchecked for some time. York University has not checked them and not done what they needed to do to keep them in line.”
As previously covered in Excalibur, the YFS and two other student unions made a solidarity statement with Palestine, which received mixed responses of support and backlash.
In response to the lawsuit and other accusations, YFS President Ashley D’Souza says: “YFS stands against all forms of discrimination and whether that’s Islamophobia, that’s antisemitism, racism. We’re affirming that stance and our stance against Zionism, which justifies the atrocities of the genocide of the last 75 years in Palestine, is not antisemitic.
“We’re gonna continue to do what we’ve always done, and that is ultimately to support the membership. And that means ensuring that the union is protected on a legal front so that we can continue to provide services,” D’Souza adds.
York’s response to the student unions controversy included several statements describing its attempts to engage with the YFS and the two student unions, as well as opposing their solidarity statement.
York also announced on Oct 14. that it was increasing campus safety measures, such as safety patrols and security for high-profile events.
When asked about York’s response, Jacob Berman, the advocacy intern at Hillel says, “I think this school is handling it very well. Throughout the past years at York, the administration hasn’t really done anything. It’s nice to know now they’re finally taking a stance and supporting Jewish students.”
On Oct. 20, York gave a remedial action warning to the student unions due to a suspected breach of university regulation. Currently, the unions are not complying with the request from York administrators. The unions’ latest statement called York’s recent actions an “attack on student autonomy.”
According to York, because of the unions’ non-compliance, they are undergoing a formal 11-step process with the Student Community & Leadership Development (SCLD).
Similar to Berman’s comments, Zisckind says the clients and students she has spoken to say “this administration is doing more than the previous administrations. That’s not saying what they’re doing is sufficient. That’s a big technicality.”
“They’re saying this administration, by issuing that letter and that ultimatum, are doing more than they have in past administrations, it doesn’t mean they’re happy with what they’re doing. It just means that they’re doing more.”
With the class action lawsuit gone public, York community members will have to see how the next stages develop.
Zisckind clarifies the need for “spirited debate” in Middle Eastern politics yet emphasizes situations “where it crosses the line into hate speech, where it crosses the line into antisemitism, where it incites violence — the same way you cannot yell fire in a movie theater. You cannot yell fire on campus. It’s a very simple analogous situation in the law.”
“[York is] letting them yell fire. And then they’re shocked when Jewish students get persecuted, beat up, spit on, and targeted on campus … If this can affect change on campus and students can feel safe to go there, that’s essentially the main goal of the lawsuit — for York University to do what is right.”
— With Files From Harshita Choudhary