B’nai B’rith Smear Doesn’t Change Facts about University Funding

B’nai B’rith is at it again. The racist group is smearing a pro-Palestinian voice for pointing out a simple truth about Canadian life.

Last week the anti-Palestinian organization released a statement headlined “Carleton University Should Condemn Antisemitism, Take Action on Professor’s Remarks”. The alleged offence was that sociology professor Nahla Abdo stated that pro-Israel individuals gave significant sums to Canadian universities and sponsored many buildings. She pointed out that this funding gave them influence and that Jewish studies operates as “basically Israel studies”. One can listen to her full, altogether benign, comment 118 minutes into a broader discussion on Zionism.

Notwithstanding B’nai B’rith’s statement, it is a fact that pro-Israel individuals have contributed far more to Canadian universities than pro-Palestinian voices and that this has strengthened anti-Palestinian forces in those institutions. Here are some examples:

  • At Carleton there is an Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, David J. Azrieli Pavilion and Azrieli Theatre named after the Israeli-Canadian real estate magnate who gave the university millions of dollars. One of the richest Canadians prior to his death, David Azrieli served in the paramilitary Haganah group during the 1948 war. His unit was responsible for the Battle of Jerusalem, including forcibly displacing 10,000 Palestinians. A real estate developer in Israel, Azrieli made a controversial donation in 2011 to Im Tirtzu, a hardline Israeli-nationalist organization (deemed a “fascist” group by an Israeli court).
  • The Azrieli family put up $1 million to establish a Jewish Studies program at Concordia. An orchestrator of opposition to Palestinian solidarity activism at the Montreal university through the 2000s, Concordia Jewish studies professor Norma Joseph was also “instrumental” in setting up the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies. In 2011 Azrieli gave Concordia $5 million to establish the first minor in Israel Studies at a Canadian university. After attending an Association for Israel Studies’ conference organized by the Azrieli Institute, prominent anti-Palestinian activist Gerald Steinberg described the institute as part of a “counterattack” against pro-Palestinian activism at Concordia.
  • The Israeli nationalist tilt of McGill’s Jewish studies is actually inscribed in a major funding agreement. In 2012 the estate of Simon and Ethel Flegg contributed $1 million to McGill’s Jewish Studies department partly for an “education initiative in conjunction with McGill Hillel.” But Hillel refuses to associate with Jews (or others) who “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.”
  • The University of Toronto’s Jewish studies was financed by the Tanenbaums. One of the wealthy donors that replaced the Canadian Jewish Congress with the even more staunchly anti-Palestinian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Larry Tanenbaum and his brother have given the University of Toronto at least $10 million and helped raise $10 million more for the university’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and other initiatives. Last summer the University of Toronto law school rescinded a job offer to Valentina Azarova to head its International Human Rights Program after pressure from David Spiro, a former co-chair of CIJA Toronto and nephew of Larry Tanenbaum. Spiro was hostile towards Azarova because of her defence of Palestinian rights.
  • The Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies has close ties with the University of Toronto’s Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies. Alongside funding for the Anne Tanenbaum Centre, the famously Zionist Bronfman family provided $1.5 million to create the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies.
  • The Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies is now part of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, which was set up in 2010 with $35 million from Barrick Gold founder Peter In 1999 the Canadian Jewish News reported on a sizable donation Munk made to Israel’s Technion university and a speech in which he “suggested that Israel’s survival is dependent on maintaining its technological superiority over the Arabs.”
  • In 2019, power couple Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman donated $100 million to the University of Toronto in the institution’s largest ever donation. Schwartz and Reisman created the Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers, which provides millions of dollars annually for non-Israelis who fight in that country’s armed forces.
  • Supporter of Israel Seymour Schulich is almost certainly the leading private donor to universities across the country. The mining magnate claims to have donated more than a quarter billion dollars to universities, including a $20 million gift to Israel’s Technion. There is a Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie, Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario, Schulich School of Business at York as well as the Schulich Library of Science and Engineering and Schulich School of Music at McGill.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. But does this generosity come with strings attached? Certainly, it’s not uncommon for pro-Israel voices to publicly call on the Jewish community to withhold donations to universities to pressure them to clamp down on pro-Palestinian activism. When former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s September 2002 speech at Concordia was canceled due to protests, at least one major university donor backed out. Some board of governors’ members cited this as a rationale for a major clampdown on student rights. (See my Playing Left Wing: From Rink Rat to Student Radical for more detail.) Marcel Dupuis, the university’s director of corporate and foundation giving, conceded to the Montreal Gazette that “donors and alumni are saying ‘if you don’t get things in order, we’re pulling the funding.’” Later Concordia Rector Frederick Lowy further elaborated that there “have been repercussions already on fundraising.”

The Asper foundation sponsored Netanyahu’s failed visit to Concordia. In a rant against the supposedly anti-Israel media a few weeks later, Izzy Asper, owner of Canada’s largest media conglomerate, said: “We should withhold our financial support from those institutions [universities] that fail this obligation of educational integrity [to train reporters to support Israel].” This was a threat that Asper could deliver on. In 1999 he gave $2 million to the University of Manitoba, then the largest donation in the university’s history, for an Asper Chair in International Business and Trade Law as well as other funding for an Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship and other initiatives.

No matter what B’nai B’rith says, it is altogether uncontroversial to say that money from pro-Israel Canadians has bolstered anti-Palestinian forces on Canadian campuses.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.