After occupation, students meet with U of T president

Apr 4, 2024

After occupation, students meet with U of T president

The meeting about the university's investments in Israel's army was disappointing but revealing, say organizers, who for months had tried unsuccessfully to get some face time
Photo of student-occupiers interlocking arms while sitting.

Student-organizers of the two-day occupation at the University of Toronto (U of T) say they left their Apr. 3 meeting with the school’s top brass feeling “a lot of disappointment” at their lack of commitment to stop investing in companies supporting Israel’s military. 

After the meeting with U of T president Meric Gertler and two others administrators, three student-organizers representing Occupy U of T said their main goal had been to at least establish an “ad hoc committee for divestment." But the best they got, they said, was a commitment to officially respond to their three demands by Monday, Apr. 8. They are doubtful it will be anything substantial. 

The organizers, who remained unnamed during a live streamed debrief, said while the administrators appeared “apologetic,” they offered no real solutions.

“We expected a lot more. And unfortunately, we were just left with a lot of disappointment,” they said, adding that they felt the meeting was just a “tactic” to get them to end the occupation “and to simply give us nothing but blatant and empty words.”

They said that Gertler and the other two claimed ignorance when it came to exactly what is in the university’s Expendable Funds Investment Pool (EFIP) — a short-term working capital portfolio — though they say he admitted they had “military holdings.” 

The Media Co-op asked the university for this list of investments. None of the Media Co-op’s questions were answered by press time.

The students also said Gertler tried to brush off and downplay the ties between Israeli universities that U of T partners with and the Israel Defense Forces. 

Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, with which U of T has been collaborating since 2007, has announced “its steadfast dedication to supporting the civilian population, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the security forces.” That university also boasts an army base on its campus since 2019. In 2021 they two universities launched a $15-million fundraising campaign for the University of Toronto – Hebrew University of Jerusalem Research & Innovation Alliance

According to a press release, Gertler also "denied knowledge of all of Gaza's 12 universities being destroyed." 

In an unrelated tweet responding to the way Israel's army is using AI, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 suggested this type of relationship with Israel's army has been happening for years across institutions.

"The universities, research centers and think tanks who have over the years invited Israeli military personnel to share their 'expertise', warfare methods, tools and tecniques [sic], have ultimately contributed to normalise [sic] Israel's occupation and its oppression of the Palestinian people," wrote UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese.

The universities, research centers and think tanks who have over the years invited Israeli military personnel to share their 'expertise', warfare methods, tools and tecniques, have ultimately contributed to normalise Israel's occupation and its oppression of the Palestinian…

— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) April 4, 2024

Organizers also said this was the first time Gertler had met with Palestinian students since Oct. 7, despite them having requested meetings — from official email requests to staged demonstrations in front of his office — since Nov. 20. The occupation, they say, was one of their last resorts to get his attention, which seems to have worked. 

When they asked him how Israeli students had secured a meeting with him, Gertler reportedly answered it was because they did it through a “recognized university club.”

Organizers also said Gertler claimed to be completely ignorant about how much anti-Palestinian racism (APR) students have been exposed to since Oct. 7 despite several complaints lodged with the university's Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.

Other than the upcoming meeting in a week’s time, the student representatives "succeeded in securing a commitment to reestablish the Anti-Islamophobia Working Group, with a focus on creating institutional definitions for and distinguishing between Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, and anti-Palestinian racism," according to a press release from the group.

As of time of writing, 525 university faculty, staff, alumni, and students — as well as 116 other allies outside the institution — have signed an open letter supporting the students' occupation and their demands.

“The University of Toronto’s continued support for Israel, including collaborative research and academic partnerships, provides the backdrop against which students have taken a principled stance to hold the University of Toronto accountable," the letter reads. "These students have taken tremendous risk and we commend their courage." 

While it’s unclear if the group plans another occupation, the organizers said they would continue planning actions to pressure the administration, and holding workshops to urge others to stage further occupations. 

“We're prepared to act and continue to mobilize,” they said. “And we gained a lot of information from this meeting that we wouldn't have had otherwise.”

Editor's note: a previous version of this article did not specify that the Anti-Islamophobia Working Group would distinguish between Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism and anti-Palestinian racism.

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