Protesters set up camp at U of T, demand university stop investing in Israel

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Pro-Palestinian protesters set up camp at the University of Toronto’s King’s College Circle on May 2 after people entered through a fence early in the morning.Sammy Kogan/The Balloon and the Mail

Protesters at the University of Toronto broke through a temporary fence on campus under the cover of darkness early Thursday to set up a pro-Palestinian camp, one of a growing number across the country seeking to force the university to divest from related businesses. with Israel’s occupation. of the Palestinian territory.

Within a few hours, about 50 tents and more than 100 protesters had established a presence in the heart of the university’s St. George campus, where they waved banners and chanted slogans, saying they planned to stay until the university responded to their demands.

Protesters are calling on the university to reveal its financial holdings, divest from any investments that support what they describe as apartheid, occupation and illegal settlements, and cut ties with Israeli universities.

Sandy Welsh, vice chancellor of students, said Thursday night that the university has no intention of expelling protesters tonight if their activities remain peaceful. However, she reminded protesters that hate speech and threats are not peaceful behavior.

“Our concerns about safety are increasing,” Professor Welsh said in a statement. “You have called on others to join your protest and numbers have increased significantly since this afternoon. “We are concerned that many of the people present are not U of T students or other members of the U of T community.”

The protesters’ demands are similar to those put forward by camp organizers at McGill University, where protesters have been on campus since Saturday, and at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, where the camps began. this week. A wave of protests has also spread to dozens of campuses in the United States, leading to violent clashes and police action to remove protesters.

Quebec Premier François Legault said he expects Montreal police to dismantle the encampment at McGill after the university requested police assistance earlier this week.

“The camp is illegal,” Legault told reporters in Quebec City. “The law must be respected, so I hope that the police will dismantle these illegal encampments, which is what McGill has requested.”

Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani, speaking in Ottawa, said operational decisions should be made by police, independently of politicians.

A Quebec judge on Wednesday rejected a request for an injunction brought by two McGill students that would have added pressure to clear the camp.

The University of Toronto said it respects the rights of members of its community to assemble and protest within the confines of the law and university policy, as long as it does not interfere with the ability of others to teach, learn and research on campus. . according to a statement from its media relations office.

“Our preference is to start with dialogue and we have been in contact with the protesters since this morning. “Those who contravene university policy or the law risk consequences set forth in various laws and policies, such as the Student Code of Conduct, which could include suspension,” the university said in the statement.

The university erected a temporary fence around the lawn of King’s College Circle on Saturday and sent a notice to students stating that encampments or occupation of university buildings are considered trespassing, a notion the university’s faculty association has disputed. On Thursday, the university issued another message with a list of prohibited activities that includes erecting tents, making excessive noise and protesting after 10 p.m.

Erin Mackey, a protest organizer and fourth-year student, said students have been trying unsuccessfully for months to get the university to disclose any investments related to Israel’s war effort. She was part of a group that occupied part of an administration building for two and a half days last month, but said a subsequent meeting with university president Meric Gertler left protesters dissatisfied.

“We are here demanding that U of T divest itself,” Mackey said. “We hope the university takes a bold stance and is on the right side of history.”

Mackey, who will graduate next month, said students like her in Gaza face a world where their universities have been destroyed. She drew parallels between the current wave of camps calling for divestment and the movement to boycott South Africa in the 1980s, which was championed by students on many campuses.

At the time, universities did divest from companies doing business in South Africa, and in recent years many have also divested from the fossil fuel industry following pressure from students and professors.

The students’ divestment demands have primarily focused on weapons manufacturers that do business with the Israeli military or financial institutions that invest in those weapons manufacturers, as well as companies related to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In a letter to protesters in April, Dr. Gertler said the university’s asset management corporation, which oversees its endowment, does not invest in individual companies but rather hires managers to make investment decisions, usually in pooled funds. According to him, no direct participation in the portfolios under his management meets the criteria outlined in the protesters’ demands.

He also rejected demands for an academic boycott of Israeli universities, saying that collaboration and the free flow of ideas are essential to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

Deb Cowen, a professor of urban planning and geography and part of the Jewish Teachers Network, said many teachers attended the protest to support the students’ demands.

“We are grateful to them for doing what we think needs to be done, which is to drive the conversation forward,” Professor Cowen said. “They have been organizing for months and have had no meaningful dialogue about divestment and the principles of ethical investing.”

Professor Cowen said protest organizers take seriously concerns that demonstrations elsewhere have been perceived as anti-Semitic and said many Jewish students and teachers have joined this protest because they oppose the government’s actions. Israeli.

Police in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto and Montreal have not reported any arrests to date at these camps.

With reporting by Mike Hager and The Canadian Press