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Group at York U calls for reinstatement of employees charged in Indigo defacement

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A group of faculty, staff and students at York University is calling for the reinstatement of three university employees who were suspended after police laid charges in the defacement of an Indigo bookstore in Toronto.

The exterior of the large Indigo location was splashed with red paint and posters were glued to the doors and the walls earlier this month in what Toronto police investigated as a hate crime amid tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.

Heather Reisman, founder and CEO of the books giant, is Jewish and Indigo has long been a target of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement because Reisman and her husband also founded the HESEG Foundation, which offers scholarships to people without family in Israel who nevertheless serve in the Israeli military.

Toronto police last week said they charged 11 people with mischief over $5,000 over the incident at the Indigo store.

York University associate professor Anna Zalik said York professor Lesley Wood as well as a university researcher and another staff member were suspended by the university after they were among those who were charged.

Zalik, who is a member of the group calling for the reinstatement of the three York employees, said York University faculty, staff and students were walking out of classes Tuesday afternoon in protest of the suspensions.

"Many faculty members are outraged that the administration has suspended these individuals rather than defending them publicly," she said.

"We feel that the administration should be standing up for rights to free expression and should be ensuring that there is proper due process followed in all cases."

York University confirmed in a written statement that it has placed the employees on "non-disciplinary leave," calling it a "difficult" situation.

"York has adopted this approach out of concern for the safety of our community including the individuals charged by the police," deputy spokesperson Yanni Dagonas wrote.

"York is acting in the best interests of student learning and in keeping with our stated values, including our commitment to free speech and open dialogue in peaceful ways that do not violate the law, university policies, or codes of conduct."

The university said it is "considering the implications of these matters" and will not be commenting further.

Zalik said the school should protect staff engaged in any kind of activism.

"We want to know why it is the administration would make this kind of a decision, which, in the case of professor Wood we know it was very much against her wishes," Zalik said.

"She didn't want to be suspended. She wanted to come and complete her classes for the semester."

Zalik, who is a member of the steering committee of the Jewish Faculty Network, said her group put out a statement on Monday pointing out that protesting Indigo is not antisemitic.

The suspensions and the protest of them come after tensions escalated between York and several student groups at the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Three student groups issued a statement on Oct. 12 expressing "solidarity with Palestine."

The statement — which came less than a week after Hamas fighters stormed into Israeli communities in a brutal rampage that killed an estimated 1,200 people — called the Oct. 7 attack "a strong act of resistance" by the Palestinian people, while affirming their right to "self-determination and liberation."

The administration at York condemned the statement "unequivocally," demanded the student union leaders resign and launched a review to determine if they breached their responsibilities.

In an Oct. 31 Instagram post, the York Federation of Students that represents more than 50,000 undergraduates said that "demanding resignations of democratically elected students, threatening students' right to organize and speak out against injustice is an unprecedented attack by university administration."

The tensions between the university and the student unions triggered debate about the limits of free speech on campus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023. 

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