2024.05.02 Pro-Jewish at GWU, Washington, DC USA 123 119198 by Ted Eytan CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/2pNH256

2024.05.02 Pro-Jewish at GWU, Washington, DC USA 123 119198 by Ted Eytan CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/2pNH256

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A Post I Never Thought I Would Need to Write: Jewish Students Have the Right to Feel Safe on Campus

This is a post I never thought I would need to write in 2024. I have been a law professor at the University of Ottawa for nearly 26 years and the principle that all students, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation have the right to be safe and feel safe on campus and in classrooms has been inviolable and accepted as central to our academic mission. Indeed, over the years I have seen and supported colleagues’ efforts to ensure that we practice what we preach on inclusivity and ensuring a community free from harassment and discrimination. I believe the same to be true at academic institutions across the country. Yet since October 7th, something has changed.

Last week, Jewish students from multiple universities appeared at a national press conference and before the House of Commons Justice committee. They provided deeply troubling accounts of why many Jewish students are no longer safe – or do not feel safe – on campus and in some classrooms. The students spoke of physical violence, threats, and harassment simply for being Jewish. When asked, each said they did not feel safe on campus and warned of “the normalization of antisemitic rhetoric through inaction by university administrators, who fail to use even their own policies and their own code of conduct to act against antisemitism on their own campuses.”

The response to these accounts has frankly shocked me. If this was any other group, I believe the testimony would spark urgent calls to address the concerns alongside strong commitments from politicians and university leaders pledging to ensure that all feel safe. Yet in the days since the hearing, some have argued that while there is a right to be safe, there is no right to feel safe. I’ve seen professors criticize students from their own faculty, even as those students provided evidence of exclusion or discrimination from classes or public spaces on campus. Others argue that the lack of safety is deserved since those students’ views or affiliations make them a legitimate target or that feeling safe creates an unworkable standard.

To be absolutely clear, Jewish students have the right be safe and feel safe just like any other student. There are no shortage of stories and studies focused on incidents involving LGBTQ students feeling unsafe, women feeling unsafe, black students feeling unsafe, and Muslim students feeling unsafe. I can never recall anyone responding to those issues by arguing that those students have no right to feel safe or by dismissing their concerns on the grounds that somehow their fears are unwarranted or are being used as a weapon against others. That only Jewish students seemingly elicit this response is antisemitism. Indeed, open antisemitism, Jewish exclusion or hate, denial of the right to hold legitimate views on the right of Israel to exist, and to express ones political beliefs or religion is under active threat right now. It matters little that some Jewish students claim to still feel safe, since there is ample evidence that many do not in communities in which policy dictates that everyone has the right to feel safe.

There is good reason for policies that emphasize the need for students to feel safe. Studies unsurprisingly find that there is a correlation between safety and academic performance as students cannot be expected to perform at their best if they feel unsafe. Further, safety is directly linked to mental health, which has become an increasing focus of concern for universities. Students freedom of expression and freedom of association rights are also directly implicated as safety fears often lead to the uncomfortable decision to hide one’s identity, restrict participation in campus activities, or refrain from speaking out. You cannot argue in favour of expression – as I see some doing in the context of some encampments on campus that have violated university policies – and then simply ignore or dismiss the expression and association rights of Jewish students.

I write this post having just concluded teaching an annual joint course on global technology law with students and faculty from the University of Ottawa, University of Haifa, and Bocconi University. The course brings together an incredible array of participants with different backgrounds, perspectives, and religions. It once again affirmed the importance of academic exchange and why calls for boycotts are so wrongheaded. But I mention the course not because of those values, but to note that this was the first time in ten years that I was forced to remove publicly available classroom information due to safety concerns. In fact, it was also the first time that campus security was alerted to the existence and location of the class. Safety was a real issue and the experience reinforced in a personal way that some students and faculty do not feel safe on campus right now. Universities are failing to uphold their own policies, and, in doing so, failing to live up to their own ideals as inclusive institutions in which all feel welcome and safe.

26 Comments

  1. Bogaroonie says:

    I am not a law professor, but I disagree with the assertion that people have the *right* to “feel safe”.

    People should not be subject to threats of violence or hate speech that violate the law, but sometimes people feel unsafe simply because they are anxious or paranoid. They may be misinterpreting the intentions of others.

    And sometimes, people can weaponize claims of feeling unsafe in order to shut down opposing viewpoints. (After all, officials may be able to prove that you are not *actually* unsafe, but they can never prove that you do not *feel* unsafe.)

    In my view, people have the right not to be threatened; they do not have the right to feel safe.

    • The question is not whether you have a right to feel safe. The question is whether public institutions, such as universities, have the right to make you feel unsafe, such as by direct action or facilitation of a hostile environment.

      In the context of a public university, consider section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

      7. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

      Consider your right to security of person as against a public institution, such as a publicly funded university.

      If a public institution facilitates an unsafe or hostile environment, then your right to security may be infringed.

      Of course, it’s a factual question whether the public university is responsible for this infringement. If you’re simply paranoid, this question might be answered in the negative. But if the environment is actually oppressive, that’s a different situation altogether—and the one of which we are concerned.

      • Bogaroonie says:

        No, the question is whether they have the “right to feel safe”. That’s the title of Geist’s post and the claim asserted in its second sentence.

        Based on your changing the topic because “a right to feel safe” is not the question we should be focusing on, it sounds like you agree with me that people do not in fact have such a right.

        • No, you’re wrong. The right to feel safe is guaranteed by public institutions and our government. This is a legal argument. We are asking the government and public institutions to guarantee this right for Jewish students, as enshrined in our Charter and other legal instruments.

          By your own admission, you’re not a lawyer. But ask yourself who protects you from bad guys—the police and other law enforcement. They guarantee your right by enforcing the law. That is the equivalent ask here. Universities need to protect their students and guarantee their right to feel safe on campus.

          There have been societies in which citizens do not have the right to feel safe. History tells us we do not want to live in those societies.

          • Bogaroonie says:

            I notice that your quote from the Charter does not include any “right to feel safe”, and you also conspicuously cite absolutely no legal precedent for such a “right to feel safe”.

            I suspect this is because you………CAN’T.

            You have a right not to be threatened. You do not have a right to feel safe. Feeling safe is in your head. A government cannot and should not (and DOES NOT) guarantee someone’s internal feelings. They should guarantee external things such as “the right not to be threatened”.

          • What? What do you think security of person means? You don’t read the Charter or legal instruments literally. I urge you to read our Constitution and Charter.

            Regrading precedent, did you look? Or did you just make that up about internal feelings not being protected? Psychological safety (in your head) is covered by security of person—G.(J.) at paragraph 59; Blencoe at paragraph 58; K.L.W. at paragraphs 85-87.

            I am a lawyer and I assume you are not, so I understand the misunderstanding about how to read statutes and the Constitution. But please don’t make something up from a gut reaction to generate a snippy reply.

            For more on our Charter, see below. But also don’t forget about many other legal instruments that also apply to universities, as well as our Criminal Code.

            https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/rfc-dlc/ccrf-ccdl/check/art7.html

        • And yet how much of the government, etc, policies in recent years have been done because people have claimed a “right to feel safe”? That it doesn’t exist in the Charter is beside the point.

          • Bogaroonie says:

            Are you seriously defending the idea that we should threaten physical force against citizens to protect other people’s feelings?

            Authoritarianism, thy name is Kevin.

          • Surely Bogoroonie understands that governments have a monopoly on force, which they apply as needed to uphold the rule of law and protect their citizens. This idea is as old Hobbes. Why do police carry guns if not to maintain this monopoly? Authoritarianism is a completely different concept, such as an undemocratic government that limits the freedom of its citizens to an undue degree. Democracies still use force against their citizenry, just within constitutional and other limiting parameters.

          • Bogaroonie, it is interesting that you immediately jump to the conclusion that I am advocating for the use of physical force against citizens to protect the feelings of others, when I simply pointed out that a number of government policies in the past 20 years or so have been based on the idea of making sure that people feel safe (even if said policy is nothing but a placebo to placate the masses).

            A number of the various human rights tribunals in particular, but also the SCoC, have, incorrectly in my mind, expanded the “rights” that we have over and above what is specified in the Charter. The Charter itself is an issue, in that it provides for two mechanisms for governments to quash the rights of people; the most famous is Section 33 (the “notwithstanding clause”), however the one that I find more troubling is Section 1 (the “reasonable limits” clause), since not only what constitutes a reasonable limit is highly subjective but it also does not expire unlike a Section 33 exemption.

            As far as “feeling safe” is concerned, our system has moved from the point of “intent” to “the eye of the beholder”, in my view wrongly.

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  2. I’m sorry, but for you to write this many words and not bring up the actual context of the situation feels intellectually weak at best, if not flat out dishonest.

    Yes, Jewish students have a right to be safe and free of threats and physical violence. Full stop.

    What Jewish students do not have the right to though, is to interpret anti-Israel and anti-Zionist statements as making them feel unsafe when in reality it’s just challenging them and making them feel uncomfortable.

    You are quite frankly not even engaging in good faith if you can write that many words about the current Pro-Palestine protests and not once mention Palestine nor the long history of anti-Israel rhetoric being equated to anti-Semitism and being used to shut down criticism of Israel.

    • This needs to be repeated… the issue is with the Israeli government, not her citizens.

      • Tell that to the student being screamed at for committing genocide and being told to “Go back to Europe” because he or she had the audacity to wear a yarmulke in public. If you truly believe that there is not a significant amount of virulent anti-Semitism involved in these student protests, then you are probably more naive than our Prime Minister claims to be when it comes to Chinese electoral interference.

        • The argument that there is no or only a small amount of antisemitism is absurd. There is nothing wrong with caring about Palestinians, but you don’t have to lie about it to do so. Antisemitism can be rampant without undermining the people in Gaza.

  3. Jeff Dosso says:

    Independent Jewish Voices was not invited to this committee. Here’s what they had to say: https://twitter.com/IndJewishVoices/status/1788936189082227105

    All the witnesses attending were Zionists. The committee’s selectively chose Zionist voices, conflating Zionism with antisemitism again.

    • Jeff Dosso says:

      Correction:
      > conflating Zionism with antisemitism again.

      conflating _anti_-zionism with anti-semitism again.

    • Not to mention, they didn’t invite Amira Elghawaby, Laith Marouf, Yaroslav Hunka, or Ernst Zundel to speak. What an oversight.

  4. Jeff Dosso says:

    You yourself applauded the collective punishment of Palestenians by applauding the defunding of UNRWA. How can Palestenian or even Arab students feel safe around you?

    • How is applauding the defunding of UNRWA the same thing as applauding the collective punishment of Palestinians? By that token, applauding the reduction of the Canadian healthcare is the same thing as applauding the collective punishment of Canadians. That makes no sense. And even if there was an impact on Canadians in that example, can we impute approval of collective punishment—what if I applauded a reduced budget because it freed up money for another initiative? Your argument makes no sense. You’re trying to paint Mr. Geist as anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab with a false equivalency that is irrelevant to his argument. Can’t you care about Jewish students and Palestinians at the same time, or is that an impossibility?

      Shame on you, Jeff Doss.

      • Your argument makes no sense. It was by no means a reduction of funding. At the time Mr. Geist applauded it, It was a threat of complete defunding. And many NGOs said only UNRWA has the capacity to deliver for the needs of the Palestenian people. Fortunately most government have come to their senses and restored funding.

      • Jeff Dosso says:

        > Can’t you care about Jewish students and Palestinians at the same time, or is that an impossibility?

        That impossibility seems to be with Mr. Geist.

      • Agreed. The comment makes it appear that he knows of one, and only one, organization providing aid in Gaza. However that is completely false. While UNRWA is one, and possibly the largest, defunding a single organization doesn’t necessarily mean that the funding can’t be redirected to other organizations.

        For instance, the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital that Hamas claimed was bombed by Israel October last year isn’t run by UNRWA or the Gaza Health Ministry; it is run by the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem. There are many other organizations, such as the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Doctors without Borders, etc, that are providing aid to Gaza. For sure UNRWA is providing elementary schools in Gaza, but frankly why isn’t the local government doing that? Don’t they have a responsibility to the welfare of the people of Gaza?

  5. Alizabeth says:

    nice article

  6. Christobel says:

    As a longtime follower for privacy and legal reasons, I’ve always admired the regular newspaper columns and common-sense insights. But now I’m forced to unfollow. Why?:

    Talking about ‘feeling safe’ in Western universities seems more than a little tone deaf when Palestinian children are actually being starved and killed by the thousands in Gaza. No mention in this post about how these children have a right not only to feel safe but to be alive.

    For anyone on any platform to advocate for anything other than saving lives at this point in this disgusting conflict is at best morally bankrupt.

  7. So, if some gay kids are kissing on campus and that makes an ultra-Orthodox Jewish student feel “unsafe”, are the police supposed to come in and break up the kissing?

    If some leftist clowns in Che Guevara shirts and keffiyahs are protesting on campus and that makes some Jewish students feel unsafe, are we supposed to arrest them?

    Don’t the gay kids have the right to kiss even if it makes the Jewish student feel unsafe? Don’t the leftist clowns have the right to protest in whatever garb they wish, even if it makes the Jewish students feel unsafe?

    In each of these cases, mightn’t the “fear” arise in part from anti-gay or anti-Muslim bias? You see why no one has a “right” to be guaranteed an internal state of mind, right? Their internal state of mind is **on them**. It is only the **actions of others** that can violate their rights.

    There is no right to “feel safe” in this country. There are laws against **other people doing things to you**.

    So, point to the particular illegal activities that you want shut down, rather than appealing to a “right to feel safe” that doesn’t exist in Canadian law.

    You appear to be advocating for violating the rights of others in order to protect something that is not actually a right. And it appears to be simply because the people who allege that they feel unsafe are part of your ingroup, and the people they are “afraid” of are part of your outgroup.

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