TORONTO — A protest outside a Toronto university event featuring former Israeli soldiers that escalated into physical violence prompted a broader discussion Thursday on how such hot-button issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are addressed on campus.
The Wednesday night event was organized by the Herut Zionism Club and featured former members of the Israel Defense Forces speaking about "the Arab-Israeli conflict, BDS and much more," according to a promotional poster. BDS refers to the movement to "boycott, divest and sanction" Israel that has long been a hot-button issue on Canadian campuses.
Protesters and counter-protesters from on- and off-campus showed up, York President Rhonda Lenton said in a written statement Thursday.
"The fact that external groups were on campus last night for the sole purpose of fomenting conflict should be especially disturbing to everyone at York," Lenton said.
Lenton said the university is reviewing the events to determine whether there was hate speech, harassment, threats or discrimination — all of which go against the school's free speech policy.
"Shouting, threats of violence and attempts to intimidate community members are not consistent with the responsibilities we all share," she said.
Lenton did not specify which groups were involved or what side they were on, and a spokesperson for the school did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.
Toronto police Const. Allyson Douglas-Cook said officers removed several people from the protest, which she characterized as very loud but "mostly peaceful."
She said one person was injured in the ruckus, and nobody was arrested.
Organizers of the initial protest, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, said they demonstrated peacefully — if loudly — and made sure ahead of time that their chants were specifically against the IDF and not the broader Jewish community.
"They were coming in a somewhat official capacity to represent the IDF, and the IDF is known to be a force, a group of soldiers, that have actually committed a lot of human rights violations," said Huda Sadoon, a fourth-year student.
Earlier this year, the UN found the force had violated international human rights by firing live rounds into a crowd of protesters on the Gaza strip in 2018.
Videos posted online of Wednesday's event shows a large crowd filling a campus hallway, chanting, "Viva, viva intefadeh!" referring to a Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 and lasted several years.
Another video appears to show a group of people fighting in a stairwell before being broken up by police.
The clash prompted Premier Doug Ford to weigh in, condemning the pro-Palestinian protesters.
"I am disappointed that York University allowed for a hate-filled protest to take place last night," Ford tweeted. "I stand with the Jewish students and the Jewish community. There is no place in Ontario for racism and hatred."
The school said it will establish a strategy to foster a "more productive dialogue" around the thorny Israeli-Palestinian issue.
"In democratic societies, universities play a central role in facilitating debate on difficult issues," said Lenton.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2019.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press