November 12, 2019

University of Toronto Professor Refuses to Advise Pro-Israel Student

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A University of Toronto professor reportedly refused to provide career advice to a graduate student because the student is a supporter of Israel.

Ari Blaff, who is aiming to get his master’s degree in global affairs, wrote in Quillette that in December he asked Jens Hanssen, who teaches Middle Eastern and Mediterranean History at the university, in an email if he could pick his brain about “Middle Eastern history and academia” since he was looking into getting a doctorate degree in Middle Eastern studies.

Hanssen replied that he would not provide any advice to Blaff because of his involvement with Hasbara Fellowships.

“As far as I know, Hasbara fellows are Israeli advocacy activists sent to North American campuses on behalf of the World Union of Jewish Students, now under the auspices of the new Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, which earlier this year has called for a ‘new offensive against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ activists,” Hanssen wrote.

Hanssen proceeded to accuse Blaff of “slandering” people in an article he had written on Hasbara’s blog and that he’s being “instructed to conflate Judaism and Zionism and are encouraged to give the impression that such criticism constitute anti-Semitism.”

Therefore, Hanssen argued that Blaff poses a “grave threat” to “academic freedom” and consequently, he would not engage with Blaff in any way, shape or form.

Blaff responded by saying he still wanted to get his perspective on how to succeed in the world of Middle East academia even if they had differences of opinion; Hanssen never responded.

“The more I reflected upon my exchange with Hanssen, the more irritated I became,” Blaff said. “A young student seeking career advice had approached a professor in good faith and received a broadside indicting his political views, nationality, and loyalty. This was not some off-the-cuff remark—it was a 300-word message which Hanssen had typed and stamped with his own name.”

After winter break, Blaff filed a complaint to the university against Hanssen; in August, the university told him that they found Hanssen’s response to Blaff to be overly harsh, which Hanssen acknowledged, but only after initially accusing Blaff of using his email as a way to “entrap” him.

However, the university concluded that Hanssen’s response was not “discriminatory on the grounds of religion or nationality.” Blaff has yet to receive a formal apology from the university or Hanssen on the matter.

“My story suggests that concerns like mine are subject to a double-standard,” Blaff wrote. “Had an Afro-Canadian or LGBTQ student faced similar treatment, I believe the university’s administration would not have tolerated a professor’s excuses, notwithstanding his belated contrition. But nearly a decade on Ontario campuses has taught me that this is par for the course.”

A university spokesperson told Canadian Jewish News (CJN) that the university “is committed to eliminating anti-Semitism, racism and faith-based discrimination in all its forms.”

“We are also committed to the fundamental principles of free expression and open discourse in our community, provided that it remains respectful and complies with the laws and policies that protect members of our community from discrimination,” the spokesperson added.

Robert Walker, the director of Hasbara Fellowship in Canada, told CJN that Hasbara is privately funded, as it was started by Aish HaTorah in 2001.

“Our mandate is to empower pro-Israel students so they may tell the truth about Israel on campus and combat the senseless misinformation peddled by BDS activists,” Walker told the Toronto Sun.

Michael Mostyn, the president of B’nai Brith, told the Sun that Hanssen’s response “is proof of the corrosive and anti-Semitic impact that the BDS movement is having on university campuses.”

“Devotees of the movement have regressed from boycotting the Jewish State to boycotting Jewish institutions and now to boycotting individual Jewish students,” Mostyn said.

University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson told the Journal in an email, “Welcome to the new world of compassionate leftist anti-Semitism.”

According to Canary Mission, Hanssen signed a petition in 2014 calling for Middle East scholars “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” He also moderated an event in 2010 that featured Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS.

Both the university and Hanssen have not responded to the Journal’s requests for comment at publication time.