Queen's named in anti-semitism class-action suit

Queen's University is one of three Canadian schools being named in a class-action lawsuit alleging recurring anti-semitism and failure to deal with incidents on campus in a meaningful way.

The suit addresses anti-semitic events experienced on the campuses of Toronto Metropolitan University, Queen's University and The University of British Columbia - with each standalone lawsuit seeking damages of $15 million.

The suit against Queen's represents current and former Jewish students at the university, alleging that Queen's has been negligent and failed in its duty to investigate instances of anti-semitism and to foster an environment where Jewish students feel safe and welcome.

The anonymous plaintiffs are being represented by Diamond and Diamond Lawyers, who said in a release that the track record of Queen's and other named universities offering statements denouncing anti-semitism and hate speech have not gone far enough to satisfy their responsibility to Jewish students.

"Despite numerous notifications from the Plaintiffs about anti-Semitic occurrences, the University consistently fails to take substantial action, often merely offering superficial statements without meaningful resolution," states Sandra Zisckind, Managing Partner at Diamond and Diamond Lawyers.

"Owning the campus space in question, they are obligated to demonstrate accountability."

Diamond and Diamond said "100% [there will] be other schools added to the claim" but those were still being finalized as of Tuesday afternoon.

The lawsuit asserts that anti-semitic rhetoric is promoted by various student groups and academic staff, and while not endorsed by Queen's it is up to the university to sanction those responsible.

In many of the examples of anti-semitism listed in Diamond & Diamond's suit Queen's has plead ignorance regarding the identities of perpetrators, however the law firm says the university's investigations into the matters have not been thorough enough.

Anti-semitism on campus has only increased since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel according to the lawsuit, but Darryl Singer - the head of class actions at Diamond & Diamond - says Queen's has allowed a hateful environment to exist since long before that.

"Not only have they done nothing to stop it but in fact they've sort of tacitly encouraged it," Singer said.

"These are not new things, it's gone on for many, many years but the flashpoint that's driving this particular case now is of course the events of October 7 in Israel."

Singer said while those supporting Palestine claim their protests and what the lawsuit describes as hate speech are in response to Israel's retaliation to the attack, a continued military response that has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians in just over a month, anti-semitism on campuses had already increased dramatically before any action was taken by Israel.

The lawsuit essentially pushes Queen's to condemn pro-Palestinian rallies, as Singer says much of the rhetoric incites violence against Israel whereas pro-Israeli rallies are calling for peaceful resolution.

"There's not a single thing that goes on at any of those rallies that's calling for harm to the Palestinians, that's calling for the destruction of an entire people," Singer said.

"On the other side what we are seeing on those campuses is 'from the river to the sea' which means basically the destruction of Israel."

The statement "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" is often heard at rallies for Palestine, and has been condemned as anti-semitic by organizations such as the Anti Defamation League.

However many pro-Palestinian advocates strongly disagree with that interpretation, saying that it is a call for peace and an end to Israeli occupation, and that extreme interpretations of the slogan are misguided.

“The attempts to redefine this chant by those who are not Palestinian is an overreach and mischaracterization,” the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee said.

Singer says there is a "juxtaposition" between the Jewish position of supporting Israel versus the other position which he say is supposedly supporting Palestine and Gaza but really crosses over into what is essentially hate speech and calling for death and destruction.

He says if Muslim or Arab students were being subjected to the same treatment that Queen's Jewish students are, the response from the university would have more teeth.

He says he suspects the university is actually choosing not to condemn anti-semitism or the actions of pro-Palestinian student groups due to the perception that Israel is in the wrong.

In general, Singer says that universities have completely adopted a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel stance.

"In this particular academic worldview Israel's the bad guy," Singer said.

"And we don't want to offend the people that are perceived as the oppressed."

Pro-Palestinian supporters however feel the exact opposite, saying that in its statements since October 7 Queen's has consistently condemned the Hamas attack while failing to acknowledge the Israeli occupation or condemn the actions of Israel.

One student said statements released by Queen's Principal Patrick Deane have been one sided, downplay the Palestinian struggle as a whole, and routinely include pro-Israeli propaganda.

Singer said that it's early in the process of the lawsuit, and Diamond and Diamond have only heard from Queen's counsel in the last few days.

In response to the lawsuit, Queen's University said it can't comment on the specifics but that the university has been clear there is no space for violence or hate at Queen's.

"We are committed to fostering a safe environment for all at the university and we will continue to support our students, faculty, and staff," Queen's statement reads.

"We encourage those impacted by recent events – especially those from Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian and Muslim communities – to reach out to access available supports, whether that's counselling, academic advising, spiritual care, cultural support, or human rights advocacy. We also continue to take seriously and investigate all reports and incidents involving vandalism, acts of religious intolerance, or hate, and will if appropriate, refer cases to the police for further investigation."

The suit states explicitly that nothing within it is meant to restrict the Canadian Charter right to free speech, and that incidents and repeated behaviour named in the claim cross the line into hate speech.

However if the suit is successful, both courts and university campuses may need to reckon with free speech related complaints on campus.

Lawsuit against Queen's in full

Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, YGK News