An Open Letter to Rhonda Lenton: The November 20th Violence is on You

Dear Dr. Lenton,

On November 20th, a large number of York students and community members staged a protest against a talk by reservists from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). The vast majority of the talk’s attendees were outsiders, many of whom had come specifically in the hopes of attacking Palestinian student activists and their allies. While York Security stood by and refused to act, these outsiders assaulted peaceful protesters. One of our members was brought to the hospital after a punch to the back of the head. He was peacefully documenting the protest. These violent outsiders spat at, shoved, and threatened counter-protesters, attempted to steal their phones, attacked marshals who were trying to keep the peace, and stole Palestinian flags so that they could beat counter-protesters with the flagpoles. 

Rhonda Lenton, your letter to the community reveals a shocking ignorance of what took place on November 20th. You have a responsibility to keep our campus safe, and you have failed.

You failed when your agents, York Security, refused to remove violent people who were not even members of the York community. Many people pointed out that the Jewish Defence League (JDL), a group well-known for its brutal violence and islamophobia, were in attendance, and Security did not care. This letter sent to the JDL (here is the full text if you need the reminder) in advance of the protest shows that the administration was very aware of the dangers they present. Yet they were not asked to leave campus. When marshals tried to get Security to expel the JDL members, since they were threatening and assaulting protesters, they were ignored. Marshals — York students without training or equipment — protected our community where Security refused to.

You failed when York Security made a clear path so that the man who assaulted our member could flee the scene of the crime while his victim was carried out on a stretcher. The violence was premeditated and celebrated, and yet Security helped the assailant avoid charges by escorting him away from the scene.

You failed in allowing this event to occur in the first place. Foreign militaries of any kind have no place on our campus. The IDF has been accused of war crimes by the United Nations, and yet they are welcome here? Furthermore, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) followed York’s rules and procedures by meeting with security ahead of the event, and warning them that violent outsiders were planning to attend to disrupt the protest. If there was advance planning to ensure everyone’s safety, it failed spectacularly. The safety of our community should be your first priority, not giving members of a foreign military a platform. 

You failed when you allowed the media and others to continue pushing the narrative that it was your own students and employees who initiated the violence. Despite the hundreds of smartphones in attendance, there is no evidence supporting the accusations of anti-semitic chants and protesters instigating violence. Yet, you remain silent. Consequently, you continue to fail to protect them from online harassment and further threats of violence. Review the footage, tell the truth. Live up to your legal obligations to protect your students and employees.

Finally, you failed when you sent an email that obscures the facts. The violent outsiders were supporters of the event, attacking students and employees who were exercising their freedom of expression. It is not hateful to protest the actions of a murderous occupation. The Jewish faith is one of peace and resilience, of surviving through the worst, not of inflicting the worst on others. To conflate anti-Zionism with hate is a bad faith argument. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Many Jews stand against the Apartheid state in Israel, as they once stood against the Apartheid state in South Africa. Ending Apartheid should not be debatable. But if a debate must occur, then you cannot protect and defend only one side. You chose to protect outside agitators who attacked our community members instead of supporting the freedom of expression of those who oppose the IDF.

You will fail further if your next steps are to punish members of our community for acts of self-defence. No amount of carefully crafted un-truths will change what really happened on November 20th. We will not hesitate to support anyone you target unjustly.        


The CUPE 3903 Executive Committee