All Munk School of global affairs graduate student Ari Blaff wanted to do last December was to meet a few professors over coffee to discuss pursuing a PhD with a focus on Middle Eastern studies.
The 24-year-old says he e-mailed a variety of University of Toronto professors that specialize in that area and got receptive responses — except for the one from Jens Hanssen.
Hanssen, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, replied almost immediately with a scathing e-mail accusing Blaff of being an agent of the Israeli government.
He claimed that Blaff, a former Hasbara fellow, was sent to the U of T campus by the new Israeli ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy to indoctrinate students, professors and administrators into thinking anti-Israel activities are a bad thing.
"It was a little out there," Blaff said of Hanssen's response. "I never had accusations on paper like that."
I wish I could say this was all a bad joke.
However in Hanssen's e-mail response to Blaff, he contends that Hasbara fellows are "Israeli advocacy activists" working on behalf of the ministry on a "new offensive against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists" on campus.
BDS is a worldwide movement — which has found a home on many university campuses — that tries to delegitimize the Jewish state by pressuring artists not to perform in Israel and forcing boycotts of Israeli products, such as has been done with Ahava and SodaStream products here in Toronto.
As Robert Walker, Canadian Director of Hasbara Fellowships (a pro-Israel campus advocacy organization) notes, the "real danger" of the BDS movement is its attempt to demonize Israel and "anyone connected with Israel" — while having no interest in improving the lives of Palestinians.
"Our mandate is to empower pro-Israel students so they may tell the truth about Israel on campus and combat the senseless misinformation peddled by BDS activists," Walker added.
The U of T professor, who has had a long history with the BDS and Israel apartheid movements on campus and off, even contended that a special "Hasbara handbook" has directed Blaff and other fellows on how to approach people on campus and "convince them that legitimate, non-violent criticism of the state of Israel amounts to discrimination against Jews everywhere."
"You (sic) instructed to conflate Judaism and Zionism and are encouraged to give the impression that such criticism constitutes anti-Semitism," he wrote.
Hanssen closed off his e-mail by adamantly refusing to meet the young man on "ethical and academic grounds."
"I was shocked," Blaff said. "If you were a first-year (pro-Israel or Jewish) university student speaking in his class or writing an essay I don't think you'd get fair treatment … so this has broader implications."
After being encouraged by friends, he filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
I tried over several days to reach Hanssen for comment by e-mail and by phone. He did not respond to my numerous requests.
But Kelly Hannah-Moffat, vice-president of human resources and equity insisted in an e-mail response that U of T believes it is important that all members of its community feel respected, welcomed and supported.
"We expect all members of our community to comply with U of T's policies and guidelines around creating a teaching and learning environment that is free from discrimination and harassment on any of the prohibited grounds," Moffat said, adding complaints such as the one received from Blaff are "given careful consideration."
She would not discuss Blaff's case, however, for "privacy reasons."
B'nai Brith president Michael Mostyn called it "morally repugnant" for a professor to boycott a student over his pro-Israel views or because he is "falsely assumed" to be an Israeli citizen.
He said U of T must act "swiftly and decisively" to communicate that such "blatant discrimination" by faculty members is not acceptable.
"This incident is proof of the corrosive and antisemitic impact that the BDS movement is having on university campuses," Mostyn said. "Devotees of the movement have regressed from boycotting the Jewish State to boycotting Jewish institutions and now to boycotting individual Jewish students."
Added Walker: "Our mandate is to empower pro-Israel students so they may tell the truth about Israel on campus and combat the senseless misinformation peddled by BDS activists."