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Ari Blaff: Jews are shunned and discriminated against by the social work profession

Opinion by National Post

Faculty, staff and students at Toronto's York University walk out of class on Nov. 28, 2023, in support of faculty members who were put on administrative leave for defacing a business founded by a Jew. © Provided by National Post

Like many idealistic undergrads, Johanna Joseph was drawn to social work because of “its commitment to diversity and inclusion.” Joseph said she “was optimistic these values would be mirrored in my studies, only to discover a stark contrast.”

What the York University student found was an academic culture that fostered a hostile environment for Jewish students, and a curriculum that ignored issues of antisemitism. This is a problem that pervades many university social work departments, according to current and former students. And following Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, the antisemitism within the discipline has become far more public.

Joseph said that while subjects such as “anti-Black racism and Indigenous cultures” were regularly discussed in the department’s newsletter, Holocaust remembrance week came and went without notice. The commemoration was “profoundly personal and meaningful” to Joseph, whose grandparents survived Auschwitz.

“I value these communications for continually educating me about diverse cultures and ethnicities,” wrote Joseph, who shared several emails she’d written to administrators asking if Holocaust education could be included in messaging moving forward.

In 2021, she got a response that the faculty would ensure counsellors were aware of “this important week,” but nothing ever materialized. Both 2022 and 2023 passed without any mention of Holocaust education. When Joseph emailed senior administrators in those subsequent years, she never heard back.

“It saddens me that the Jewish experience appears to be exempt from discussions about hatred, despite our culture and religion enduring significant hardships, death and animosity — only to be overlooked and forgotten. I earnestly hope that in the future, York University will demonstrate heightened awareness and empathy,” she wrote in an email to the Post.

York did not respond to the Post’s request for comment.

Social work has been at the forefront of academia’s efforts to whitewash Hamas’s atrocities. In late October, hundreds of Canadian professors, students and practitioners signed an open letter denouncing “the currently unfolding genocide against the Palestinian people,” and insisting that if “Israelis have ‘the right of self-defence,’ then Palestinians should have the right to defend themselves and resist occupation.” The statement was sanitized of any mention of Hamas or the Oct. 7 massacre.

This was not a one-off statement. The School of Social Work at York University denounced “the horrendous ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinian people in Gaza.” It made a passing reference to Hamas, though the lion’s share of its condemnation fell on Israel, without any mention of hostages or terrorism.

The Ontario Association of Social Workers took nearly a week to comment on the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and when it did, it failed to mention Israel or Hamas.

At Wilfrid Laurier University, social work professor Jessica Hutchison reacted to the Oct. 7 massacre by expressing her “hope” that Canadians will support “Palestinians who are taking their land back from settler colonizers.”

Posters plastered around downtown Toronto in December advertised a “Marxist Teach-In” held in the University of Toronto’s social work building. “Intifada ‘Til Victory,” read the advertisement. A U of T spokesman told the Post that events held on school grounds should not be misconstrued as an endorsement and that the event “was organized and independently booked” by a student group.

Pressed whether statements like “Intifada ‘Til Victory” — which many view as an incitement to violence — violate the school’s anti-harassment policy, the school’s representative noted that, “Community members are expected to adhere to relevant university policies and standards of behaviour.”

For Annette Poizner, the abandonment of Jews and antisemitism has been an underlying theme throughout her career as a registered social worker. “This is not since Oct. 7. This is an ongoing problem,” Poizner told the Post. “You have a field that is telling us about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and how, in the curriculum, they study every form of racism,” she added. “But they don’t study antisemitism.”

Hostility toward Jews in the social work profession has been a long-running concern of Poizner, other academics and several recent graduates. Despite the field proudly embracing anti-racism and social justice causes — as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — antisemitism remains conspicuously absent.

Nora Gold, a former social work professor, tried to change this. At the start of her academic career in the early 1990s, Gold embraced social work’s emphasis on racism and sexism, but thought it should include antisemitism.

“I felt good in social work, which was a progressive area,” Gold recalled. “As a matter of principle, when I was teaching anti-racism, I would discuss antisemitism, and every time, no one in the class knew what that was, except the one or two Jewish kids. And I was really upset by it, and tried to get it taught.”

Gold envisioned making antisemitism a part of the social work curriculum and integrating it within accreditation standards, which then mandated instruction on anti-racism. However, her efforts before the Canadian and American professional social work associations fell on deaf ears.

“I went through all the channels, I presented a written paper and neither of them, I wasn’t successful in either case,” she said.

In 1996, Gold wrote about antisemitism’s absence from anti-racism studies. Studying the hatred of Jews “has been almost completely excluded from discussions of racism and from anti-racism efforts within the U.S. and Canadian schools of social work,” she wrote .

A few years later, Gold left academia and began a new journey as an author. Throughout her career, she helped found a number of charitable organizations, including the New Israel Fund of Canada, JSpaceCanada and the Canadian Friends of Givat Haviva.

Drawing on her experience in academia, Gold wasn’t shocked by what she has seen across the social work discipline since Oct. 7. “I’m horrified and terrified and deeply wounded by it, but I’m not surprised,” Gold told the Post from her home in Israel. “I’ve been aware of this vividly since the ’80s.” In 2014, Gold even wrote an award-winning book, “Fields of Exile,” chronicling some of her struggles as a Jew in academia.

“I wrote that book for an audience that I thought of as well-meaning, but ignorant. I didn’t write it for Jews exclusively,” she said. Set in the early 2000s, “Fields of Exile” is a fictionalized retelling of the intellectual undercurrents Gold witnessed in academia, particularly its disregard of antisemitism and the concerns of Jewish students, as well as its demonization of Israel.

Unfortunately, Poizner and Gold’s attempts to bring antisemitism into social work curricula never panned out and the results are being felt by students and recent graduates today. “In four years, none of my professors ever discussed antisemitism within the curriculum,” Adi Moran, a fourth-year social work student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), told the Post.

“My curriculum focuses heavily on the history of colonialism’s impact on Indigenous communities and how it is maintained today through white supremacy,” Moran continued, noting that “anti-Asian racism, Islamophobia and LGBTQ rights” were also taught.

In May 2021, during the last flareup between Israel and Hamas, Moran remembers “crying that whole week” because “it felt so isolating to cope with the response on campuses.” The school’s social work union sent out statements supporting a boycott of Israel and roundly condemned the Jewish state. “Me and my few friends would always talk privately in fear we would face repercussions,” Moran said.

The sense that Jewish social work students have to meet secretly and obscure their religious identities was voiced by several others who spoke with the Post. Hodaya Acoca, another recent York social work grad, shared her decision to stop “wearing my Magen David necklace” and to limit “my time on campus,” as a result of the hostile environment.

Stacey Love, a social service worker student at George Brown College, explained how she “was grateful to be online” during the pandemic. “I felt that I had to hide my Jewish identity,” said Love, an Orthodox Jew.

“I knew one thing: I absolutely wouldn’t identify as Jewish in this class,” she confided. “In most classes, I did not feel safe to be open about being Jewish. I would reluctantly reveal myself when I had to, such as when working in a group and I needed to explain why I couldn’t meet Friday night or Saturday.”

Working on a project about antisemitism, Love polled the class to see if others were interested in collaborating. Almost no one responded. One colleague wrote back, “We must also be fair to the Palestinians,” which Love believes was a disingenuous attempt to tie Middle Eastern politics to a discussion about hate.

One of her assigned readings in her disability advocacy course referred to “the killing intersections of racism and ableism in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014,” without any mention of Hamas rockets or terrorism.

Love recalled only a passing reference to antisemitism throughout her coursework and a general atmosphere plagued by binary thinking and political advocacy, which created a learning environment that lacked nuance. Jews were placed in the white privilege category, according to such thinking.

“I feel like this theoretical model actually fuels antisemitism,” Love said, referring to critical race theory. “There were many reflective assignments in my course related to power, privilege and identity, and I needed to identify as a white privileged person in virtually all my assignments (which always felt like a simplistic label to me).”

In a statement to the Post, George Brown College underscored that student safety is “crucial” to administrators. “Given the ongoing global conflicts, we recognize the unease, fear and pain those from our Jewish and Palestinian communities are experiencing,” the college stated. “Those experiencing or witnessing discrimination, harassment or hate can contact our office of anti-racism, equity and human rights services.”

A recent TMU social work grad, who asked that her name not be used, has a similar experience. After a professor insisted that all white people were white supremacists, she challenged the assumption. “When I brought up the fact that I can’t be a white supremacist because I am Jewish, the response I received was: ‘You’re white; therefore, you’re a white supremacist.’ ”

Like Love, she did not feel comfortable being physically present in social work classes. “Most of my courses were through Zoom because of COVID, and when classes resumed, I didn’t attend because I feared discrimination. Behind a Zoom class, I didn’t have to put on my camera, so no one knew my race or religion. It was safer,” she confided.

She expressed a common sentiment shared by many students who spoke with the Post: an eagerness to engage in challenging material and explore how Jewish identity intersected with concepts such as white privilege. Many display personal pronouns on their social media profiles and are unwavering about their liberal political leanings. And yet, many felt maligned and alienated within social work departments across Canada.

“I am white because I am an Ashkenazi Jew,” said Elah Cohen-Rimmer, a York University social work student. “I understand that I have benefited from white privilege, but I am part of a community that has historically never been considered white.” Rimmer acknowledged her desire to grapple with these kinds of questions but doesn’t feel comfortable discussing them with teachers or colleagues because she’s been “shut down” in the past.

In a third-year class on racism, whiteness and social work, Rimmer learned extensively about “Hispanic/LatinX and Black communities,” but nothing about antisemitism. The year before, after a professor lectured about Islamophobia, a Jewish friend “asked if we would be discussing antisemitism at all,” she said. The response: “The syllabus has been finalized, but we will be discussing Orientalism a bit.”

Researchers are beginning to unpack the extent to which antisemitism has flown under the radar in a field dedicated to social justice and protecting marginalized communities. In 2021, a team of academics looked at “nine discourse-shaping periodicals” over a decade, and found only six articles about Jews, the majority of which were related to Israel.

“The results suggest that American Jews are largely invisible in social work discourse, which raises questions about the profession’s ability to comply with its ethical standards,” the team concluded.

Similar findings were echoed in September 2023 by a pair of researchers who acknowledged that antisemitism is “seldom included in social work education or in DEI programs.” Polling social work students, they found that nearly three-quarters of Jewish respondents (73 per cent) “felt there was no content on antisemitism.”

The main themes echoed by Jewish social work students were that Jews “are seen as white and therefore privileged,” and anti-Zionism has “merged with antisemitism.” The paper concluded that, “The subject is basically ignored in the curriculum.”

Poizner’s discussions with other students and her own experiences add a personal dimension to these findings. “My professor claimed that Jews never experienced oppression like other communities and that Auschwitz was not oppression,” one student confided to her . Another explained how an instructor disregarded a desire to learn more about antisemitism.

“When I asked my professor why we do not discuss antisemitism within the curriculum, he said that social work stays out of religion to remain neutral. I argued that we discussed Islamophobia many times throughout the year. He declined to answer and returned to his desk.”

Canadian schools have largely resisted Poizner and Gold’s calls over the decades to listen to Jewish students. The former recently gathered over 1,000 signatures and sent off a letter to dozens of departments across the country advocating for them to start teaching about antisemitism. She told the Post that only four schools responded.

The absence of such coursework, according to those interviewed by the Post, has exacerbated antisemitism on campus. And things have only gotten worse since the Oct. 7 massacre.

“DEI ideology has infiltrated all faculties within the universities, including social work,” said Shayna Kulman-Lipsey, a registered social worker. “This ideology promotes anti-Zionism, as Israel is seen as a colonizer and oppressor. It disregards Jews because they are seen as white and privileged. It’s a warped narrative.”

Lipsey spent over a decade at the University of Toronto as an administrator, and her experience echoes that of Love and Moran. “I went directly to the central DEI office and spoke to them about my concerns that they did not address antisemitism. Not much happened, and retrospectively, I see it didn’t fit with their ideological narratives,” Lipsey said.

A spokesman for the university defended the faculty’s stance against antisemitism, pointing to a course on the subject, a lecture last October about the Holocaust and a resource list for Jewish Heritage Month. Asked whether the course syllabus could be viewed, a spokesperson said the materials “are generally only available to students,” and cited their “proprietary” nature in declining the Post’s request.

“The problem now is that antisemitism is being rationalized (in) the same way it has in the past over the centuries, including in Nazi Germany,” said social worker Kevin Zelig.

Poizner agreed: “They have a concept that, in fact, Jews are what’s called ‘white-passing.’ Jews, they tell us, have white privilege. This business about white privilege for the Jews is surprisingly close to the  antisemitic trope of yesteryear.”

National Post


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