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October 7, 2009

Noble, standing for student rights

Scott Stockdale

Scott StockdaleYork University History Professor David Noble found himself alone in front of a recent Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT), after an Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) lawyer, who was supposed to argue his case, pulled out at the last minute, without explanation.

Professor Noble's complaint against the university had two parts: discrimination and reprisals.

It all began in September of 2004, when several students in Prof. Noble's class complained about the university's then 30-year-old practice of cancelling classes on Jewish high holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: a practice they considered unfair and discriminatory because the university didn't cancel classes for holidays of any other faith. 

Prof. Noble told the OHRT chairperson, Michael Gottheil that the students didn't want to complain out of fear of being called antisemitic; but he felt that because he was Jewish, he could complain without any such fears.

Subsequent events proved that this was not the case.

The first part of the complaint, for discrimination, was settled after an OHRC investigation found York's practice discriminatory and referred the matter to the tribunal for adjudication.

Last fall, before the issue made it to the OHRT, York University agreed to stop the practice, starting in September 2009.

On November 18, 2004, Noble garnered controversy for handing out flyers entitled "The York University Foundation: The Tail That Wags the Dog (Suggestions for Further Research)" at a campus event.

The information sheets alleged that the Foundation, York University's principal fund-raising body, was biased by the presence and influence of pro-Israel lobbyists, activists and persons involved in pro-Zionist Jewish fund-raising agencies, whom he identified as the "tail", and that this bias affected the political conduct of York's administration in important ways, through their power to "wag the dog".

In particular, Noble claimed that there was a connection between alleged "Pro-Israeli influence" on the York Foundation and the university administration's treatment of vocal pro-Palestinian campaigners on campus.

During his OHRT testimony, Prof. Noble said that the day after he handed out the “Tail that Wags the Dog” flyers, a fax by Hillel: The Centre for Jewish Life on Campus, and York University, denounced him as a racist and a bigot.

And the CJC (Canadian Jewish Congress) and the UIA (United Israeli Appeal) – the parent organization for all Hillel organizations in Canada - issued a press release denouncing him as an antisemite.

Citing The Globe and Mail (November 20, 2004) and the Toronto Star (Nov. 21, 2004) articles that followed these press releases, Prof. Noble told the tribunal: “I was publicly denounced as an antisemite, a racist and a bigot.”

Although Prof. Noble's conflict with York University Administration officials was supposed to be private, through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests he said he obtained a copy of an email York’s board of governor member Michael Firman sent to the CJC and Hillel, discussing his situation.

“These letters were not public, but the Canadian Jewish Congress got them,” Prof.  Noble said.

Moreover, additional emails professor Noble obtained under FOI requests indicate that in January 2005, York’s Faculty of Arts Dean – and Prof. Noble's immediate supervisor – David Drummond sent an email to an associate dean at York to see if Prof. Noble's grading system was unusual and if he had required students to participate in banned, illegal demonstrations.

“I was required to defend myself against pure fabrication,” Professor Noble said, “Drummond was doing this on behalf of the university.”

In September 2005, after announcing that he would hold classes on the Jewish high holidays, Professor Noble, changed his mind, because he said he was threatened with reprisals by university officials.

During this time, one of Prof. Noble's students filed a complaint against him with York's ombudsman, saying he had to identify himself as a Jew in Prof. Noble's class, because Prof. Noble compelled students to state their religion.

Professor Noble told the tribunal that he didn't ask students to state their religion: he asked them if there were any religious holidays they observed that they would like to have classes cancelled on.

As the student who filed the complaint became increasing hostile toward Prof. Noble and other students in class, Professor Noble said he filed a complaint against the student with campus security.

Prof. Noble told the tribunal that after the student announced in class that he was collaborating with B'nai Brith, he became very concerned about outside organizations influencing students' classroom behavior.

In an interview with The Canadian Charger after his testimony, Prof. Noble said the OHRC lawyer told the OHRT he was withdrawing because York had stopped the practice, so the public interest has been served.

Prof. Noble said York agreed to stop the practice a long time ago and the public interest should extend to reprisals (against those who lodge complaints with the OHRC).

After a number of years of dealing with the OHRC about this issue, Prof. Noble said people should take encouragement from his experience.

“There are venues in which the playing field is leveled. Ordinary citizens without leverage or power have the human rights commission and the Freedom of Information Act.”

He said that while one can never be sure of the outcome, he thinks the OHRT will rule in his favor.

“I think the tribunal will side with me and affirm protection from reprisal as a linchpin of the (Human Rights) code. If people feel they will be subjected to reprisals, few will take their complaints to the commission.”

In briefs submitted to the OHRT before the recent hearing, the OHRC lawyer asked York to pay Professor Noble $20,000 and issue a public apology, while in his brief, Prof. Noble asked for $250,000 and a public apology.

The OHRT will hear closing statements from Prof. Noble and the university on November 3. Prof. Noble said it could then take up to a year for the OHRT to reach a decision.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto. 

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