University Under Fire for Holiday Policy

By Sheldon Gordon

Published April 07, 2006, issue of April 07, 2006.
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TORONTO — A York University professor has lodged a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, alleging that the school discriminates against non-Jewish students because it cancels classes for three days annually during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

David Noble, a Jewish professor at York, filed the human rights complaint with the quasi-judicial commission after failing to convince university administrators that they should either cancel classes on all religious holidays or eliminate the practice. Noble, who teaches social and political thought in the Arts Faculty plans to hold classes on the High Holy Days in defiance of the current policy. According to Noble, this policy is in violation of the York University Act of 1965, which forbids the school to impose religious observances on any of its members.

Noble is already seeking $8 million from York in a separate grievance that is being arbitrated. In this case, he claims that the school wrongfully accused him of “bigotry and racism” after he distributed a flier attacking the “pro-Israel lobby” at the York University Foundation, the university’s fund-raising arm.

About 10% of York’s 50,000-member student body is Jewish, the largest Jewish presence on any Canadian campus. York is the only university in the country to cancel classes on any religious holidays other than statutory holidays such as Christmas. Students of any faith can be exempt from classes on their holidays without penalty if they speak with their professors in advance.

York spokesman Richard Fisher said that it would be difficult to cancel classes for all holidays. “There are probably about 100 to 200 religious holidays each year,” he said.

The human rights commission served the president of the university, Lorna Marsden, and two other school officials with Noble’s complaint earlier this month. The “named parties” have until April 10 to respond.

Noble told the Forward that he is agreeable to mediation, as proposed by the commission. But he denounced the university’s holiday policy as “blatantly discriminatory,” adding: “There’s no question in my mind that this is wrong and it’s an embarrassment to the university. It will end [in my victory], I’m very confident.”

Sara Horowitz, director of York’s Centre for Jewish Studies, said that the existing policy has “fairly widespread support” among the university’s students and faculty. “I don’t think the complaint will be adjudicated in Professor Noble’s favor,” she said. “But it is certainly possible that the University Senate may [eventually] decide that it doesn’t want to have this kind of universitywide observance, particularly as the demographics of the university have begun to shift.” Still, Horowitz added, she doesn’t anticipate such a change “in the immediate future.”

York began canceling classes on the High Holy Days in 1974, at the request of a Jewish student. “It’s been a concern to me since the moment I arrived” at York 15 years ago, Noble said. But he did nothing until the issue arose 18 months ago in a class discussion on the separation of church and state. After he protested the policy to Marsden, the University Senate asked a subcommittee to review the issue.

After the subcommittee issued a report determining that the existing policy was fair, Noble approached York’s ombudswoman. She ruled last December that the policy does not violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Asked why other faiths haven’t objected to York’s policy, Noble said: “I’m filing [the human rights complaint] in association with students at York who are of other faiths.” He would not disclose their names. “Other people have not raised this issue for fear of being attacked as antisemitic,” Noble said. “I’ve been attacked as antisemitic, as well, but I don’t care about that.”

Noble insisted he is equally opposed to the cancellation of classes for Christmas and for the Friday before Easter. “But those are statutory holidays, and it’s not within the purview of York University to act on it,” he said. “The reason I’m focusing on Jewish holidays is because York is.”

Asked whether he is a secular or religious Jew, Noble said: “Those are not categories that interest me. I have a certificate of my circumcision… if you want to see it.” He said he has cordial relations with his Jewish students, even those who disagree with his protest. “But as soon as I went public, I started getting hateful phone calls from some of my co-religionists — concerned about my spiritual welfare, no doubt.”

Noble said that Jewish academics at York haven’t discussed the issue with him. “This is not about religious holidays,” he said. “This is about power. And my colleagues, as at any other institution, are afraid of power.” Noble said that he has been subjected to “reprisals” from officials at York; he included this in his complaint to the human rights commission. The professor declined to elaborate.

Spokesman Fisher told the Forward that the university is “not aware of any reprisals against Professor Noble.”

Horowitz said that the rights complaint is part of a larger agenda that Noble harbors. “Although David Noble would maintain that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, clearly he has taken aim at things Jewish as well as things Zionist,” she said.

In 2004, Noble distributed a flier at York saying that the presence on the board of the York University Foundation of several “Israel lobbyists and fund-raisers” might “help explain” the administration’s “repression of pro-Palestinian activists.” He listed several prominent Jewish philanthropists on the board and pointed out their ties to Jewish and Zionist causes.

The following day, a news release issued by York slammed the flier, saying that it targeted “certain members of the York community on the basis of their ethnicity and alleged political views.” The release quoted the York chapter president of the campus organization Hillel as voicing concerns about “bigotry and racism.”

Now, as Noble’s defamation grievance proceeds, York has disclosed a fax that university officials received from Hillel staffers soon after Noble’s flier appeared, asking to consult them on a response. In Noble’s view, the fax suggests that Hillel officials instigated the York news release. “This… was all engineered by the Israel lobby,” Noble told a campus newspaper. “They got York University to defame one of its own professors.”

Representatives for York and Hillel have declined to discuss the case publicly while it is under arbitration.

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