FIRST READING: York University's brave fight to vandalize bookstores without consequence (for Palestine)

School in revolt after three staffers suspended for slathering an Indigo bookstore with red paint and genocide accusations

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York University – long a centre of Canadian anti-Israel sentiment – is now witnessing a miniature staff revolt demanding that faculty be allowed to commit pro-Palestinian vandalism without consequence.

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The inciting incident was the arrest of three York University staff members in connection with the targeted vandalism of a Toronto-area Indigo bookstore. On Nov. 10, demonstrators in reflective vests splashed red paint on the chain’s flagship location at Bay and Bloor streets and pasted posters to its front windows accusing Jewish CEO Heather Reisman of “funding genocide.”

Last week, Toronto police announced the arrest of 11 people in connection with what they deemed an incident of “hate-motivated mischief.” When it swiftly emerged that three of those were York University employees, including an associate professor, the school responded by putting all three on leave, and releasing a statement saying that its commitment to “free speech and open dialogue” did not include violations of the law.

On Tuesday, 200 faculty and students walked out, calling the suspensions “an effort to repress Palestine solidarity peace activism.” “Stop campus reprisals! Reinstate them NOW! Permanent ceasefire NOW!” reads the official literature for the walkout, which was organized by a “coalition of York faculty.”

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Walkout pamphlet
Official literature for the Nov. 28 walkout. Photo by Via Jonathan Kay

Protesters carrying a banner reading “Canada Stop Arming Israel” also massed outside the Toronto Police’s 52 Division location downtown, demanding the charges be dropped.

On Thursday, social activist Naomi Klein will headline another demonstration outside Indigo to pin up additional posters and denounce what they call “police intimidation tactics against peace activists.”

None of the actions are claiming that the Indigo demonstration never happened, or that the accused York University staff had nothing to do with it. Rather, the gist is that using posters and red paint to accuse a bookstore CEO of genocide is not only “legitimate and necessary,” but should be defended by York University administrators.

“Many faculty members are outraged that the administration has suspended these individuals rather than defending them publicly,” York University associate professor Anna Zalik told The Canadian Press.

Zalik, who specializes in critical development studies, has been leading the effort to have the three staff members reinstated.

Indigo has long been a target of the Canadian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a university-led effort to boycott any business with even peripheral connections to the State of Israel.

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The cited reason for Indigo’s inclusion is Reisman’s co-founding of the HESEG Foundation, a Canadian-registered charity that funds the tuition of former “lone soldiers,” foreign volunteers for the Israeli Defense Forces.

This, according to an advisory for the planned Thursday demonstration, makes Indigo complicit in “war crimes,” a “genocidal campaign” and “profiteering from Israeli war crimes.”

The statement also denounced the Toronto Police for “grotesque use of inflammatory language” in accusing the alleged Nov. 10 vandalism of being connected to “hate.” A throughline in all the counter-demonstrations is the assertion that accusing Israel and its supporters of genocidal war criminality is not antisemitic.

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“We know that fighting antisemitism requires fighting anti-Palestinian racism and all forms of interlocking oppressions; none of us will be free until all of us are free,” reads the advisory for the Klein-led Thursday protest.

Although police characterized the Nov. 10 incident as a “suspected hate-motivated offence,” none of the 11 were actually charged with hate crimes. The only two charges are mischief over $5,000 and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence. Both charges carry a maximum punishment of up to 10 years in prison, although penitentiary sentences for the offence are rare.

Following the Oct. 7 massacres in Israel, Canadian academia has produced a wave of statements and petitions excusing the attacks or celebrating them outright as a “decolonial resistance.”

Throughout, York University has consistently emerged as an unambiguous focal point. It was the York Federation of Students that issued a statement in the immediate aftermath of the massacres deeming them a “justified and necessary” act of “resistance.” “Chant sheets” distributed by the federation at protests also contain calls of “long live the intifada!,” a reference to violent Palestinian uprisings against Israel.

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York University law faculty were disproportionately represented in a mid-November petition asserting that the massacres should be “contextualized,” rather than condemned.

And CUPE locals representing York University staff have issued multiple statements accusing Israel of “genocide” and “apartheid,”  while making no mention whatsoever of the Oct. 7 massacres that sparked the current conflict. “We remain dedicated to fighting against Canada’s own settler-colonial violence,” reads one from Oct. 18.

The three suspended York University staffers are Lesley Wood, 56, a York University associate professor specializing in leftist protest movements. Her most recent paper is Counterprotest and Anti-Racist Solidarity in the Trump Era.

Sharmeen Khan, 45, a bookkeeper with the faculty union CUPE 3903 who, according to her Facebook page, coordinates “workshops to help people become activists.” And Stuart Schussler, 39, a graduate student whose personal blog details a career of activist work in Mexico, Ecuador and Chicago.

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