Visiting the Encampment

The day before yesterday I completed the draft of a chapter of my book slightly ahead of schedule, so I decided to reward myself by visiting the Occupy for Palestine (OfP) encampment at the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus. The encampment occupies almost all of the grassy King’s College Circle. It is surrounded by blue metal fencing, much of which is covered in OfP’s posters. The tents are in the middle of the circle and often hard to see because of the fencing. There are numerous Palestinian flags, including one large one in the centre. The southern side of the fence, facing Convocation Hall, is approximately 50 yards from the ring road (closed to automobiles) that runs around King’s College Circle.

The posters, of course, condemn Israel, its government, and Zionism and glorify the intifada and Palestinian martyrs. Some link the situation in Gaza to a bigger picture, for example one proclaiming: “From Kashmir to Palestine/Genocidal Settler-Colonial Occupation/Is a Crime!” That’s a mouthful. The encampment has one entrance, at the north end, across from University College. I didn’t try to enter, but I understand from others that if I were honest about being a Zionist I would be refused.

What Would Other Institutions Do?

Initially, I was asking myself a frequently-discussed question, whether what I could see at that moment – mainly posters – was antisemitic or only anti-Israel. Then I realized that such a question assumes the encampment has some legitimacy, so I asked a different question. What would a major corporation do if a group of protesters set up an encampment on its property demanding policy changes, for example that a bank no longer lend to the energy sector? What would the City of Toronto do if a taxpayers organization occupied part of Nathan Phillips or Mel Lastman squares demanding that Mayor Chow’s administration rescind the 9.5 percent increase in property taxes? (As an aside, Phillips and Lastman were Jewish; I wonder how long it will be before OfP presents research showing that they were Zionists whose names should be erased.) What would the Ford Government do if environmentalists set up an encampment at Queen’s Park demanding it not build Highway 413 or an encampment at Ontario Place demanding the Therme Spa and Science Centre not be built there? These questions answer themselves. All these organizations would say that policy is not dictated by well-organized trespassers no matter how loud their voices are, or how clever their slogans and posters. They would be expelled.

The Neville Chamberlain School of Negotiation

I’ve been thinking about this situation as a negotiation between the university and OfP. It seems to me that the university has done everything possible to weaken its bargaining position. It has foresworn using any negative sanctions to get OfP to leave. It has made it abundantly clear in numerous communications that it regards asking the police to clear the encampment as a nuclear option that is off the table. And metal fencing around the encampment, which the university permits, hardens the encampment, making it physically more difficult for the police to dislodge OfP members. In contrast, other universities, such as Calgary, Penn, MIT, and Arizona have called in the police.

Harvard University used the threat of sanctions against students – placing them on involuntary leave – to get them to leave. The encampment was dismantled without calling in the police. As an aside, the Interim President of Harvard, Alan Garber, delivered that threat and announced the resolution of the situation. Again, in contrast, U of T President Gertler hasn’t been heard from since the encampment started. The U of T has also made it clear that it isn’t using facial recognition technology. So it doesn’t know which students, faculty, or staff, other than those who self-identify, are in the encampment. Nor does it know the identity of those in the encampment who aren’t affiliated with the university.

According to OfP, the university has offered to establish an “ad-hoc working group” on divestment and disclosure. I wonder if OfP will be given a veto over the membership of such a group. It seems to me that, in the interest of having a diversity of views and bringing expertise to bear on policy, such a working group should include people familiar with and knowledgeable about the Israeli economy, about Jewish philanthropy to the U of T, and about the investment and management of endowment funds. This of course would mean Israelis, Jews, and finance professors. I can’t imagine OfP wants their voices heard.

I have no inside knowledge about the negotiations. Perhaps I’m wrong and the university is taking a harder line in private than in public and, conversely, that OfP is more flexible in private than in public. However, public statements and commitments often drive private negotiations, and the university’s words and actions strongly suggest to me that it is appeasing OfP.

What about Convocation?

Maybe in-person convocations, scheduled for early to mid-June, will happen. A part of King’s College Circle across from Convocation Hall isn’t occupied by the encampment, so it would provide room for students to assemble beforehand and mingle afterwards. Perhaps participants in the encampment will agree to stay quietly in their tents and not disrupt the ceremonies with demonstrations or noise. Even so, many Jewish students, staff, and faculty will regard the encampment as a hijacking of the university and an assault on their beliefs and values. I’ve registered to attend the UTSC Management convocation, and I’m planning to wear a kippah instead of the traditional mortarboard.

One response to “Visiting the Encampment”

  1. Ashley Thomson Avatar
    Ashley Thomson

    Thanks for your usual, thoughtful piece.

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