This Jewish professor has lost his patience with anti-Israel encampments

Kelly Sundberg of Calgary’s Mount Royal University sees protesters across Canada calling for intifada — and administrators doing nothing

“This is not a grassroots movement. This is an organized effort.”

That’s the professional opinion of Kelly Sundberg, tenured professor of criminology at Calgary’s Mount Royal University (MRU), when I ask him what’s behind the anti-Israel student encampments at post-secondary campuses across Canada.

“You don’t just go and collect dozens and dozens of pallets and hatch a strategy to do an encampment,” he explains.

Kelly is a practitioner in the ways and means of securing public safety. Before moving into academia, his job was locating abducted kids, tracking down foreign fugitives hiding in Canada and protecting the public from all kinds of threats.

And he continues to spend time observing protesters and their tactics firsthand — most often, incognito in a ball cap and hoodie — much like he’s dressed the afternoon we meet to talk at Loophole, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in downtown Calgary that brews the best Americano I’ve had in some time.

“These (anti-Israel protesters) are the same people who protested the Freedom Convoy, and felt that the occupation of Parliament Hill and Wellington Avenue in Ottawa was an affront to all Canadians,” Kelly tut-tuts, clutching his bearded jaw in the palm of one hand. At least the protesters in Ottawa weren’t covering their faces with keffiyehs, he grimaces.

Not only is this articulate, opinionated, 51-year-old academic an expert in public safety, he’s also been targeted as a Jew.  On Dec. 1, two months following the Hamas-led attack on Israel, Kelly was confronted in his office at the MRU campus by students who objected to a professor displaying an Israeli flag on his office door.

“No one came to discuss anything with me,” Kelly blurts, “it was just pure screaming and yelling.” Following the troubling encounter, police charged a female student — identified by MRU Students for Palestine as a Muslim-Yemeni — with causing a disturbance and a criminal trial is pending.

Several months following the incident, MRU’s chief of staff responded to Kelly’s request to address antisemitism, promising to ensure Jewish faculty, staff and students feel welcome and protected and safe. What that means, exactly, is yet to unfold. It’s telling that Kelly did not want to have this conversation on campus; “I’ll go to campus only when it’s necessary to maintain my contractual obligations,” he declares, “but I definitely don’t feel supported, safe, or welcome there.”

There’s lots of research showing that Marxism works hand-in-hand with antisemitism

This admission, from a tenured prof, causes me pause. He assures me he’s received reassuring support from people who want to remain anonymous, people who care but won’t speak up “because they’re scared of being cancelled, they’re scared of repercussions, they don’t want to be smeared online.”

Kelly sees social media as a big part of the problem — “an incredibly destructive force in our society” — and refuses to “allow it to intimidate and screw me.” He does however track the posts by MRU Students for Palestine, which include “calls to come to my classroom, masked up, and to get me to drop the charges.” These students were obviously never in any of his criminal justice classes, Kelly chuckles, if they don’t understand that it’s the Crown prosecutor, not the victim, who decides whether or not to instigate legal proceedings.

At minimum, Kelly would like to see antisemitism and hatred toward Jews included in the MRU’s mandatory equity, diversity and inclusion training. Excluding Jews from DEI, “based on a false myth of the whiteness of Jews,” is an obvious problem, he suggests, when Jewish schools are being targeted, Jewish businesses are being vandalized, and virtually every synagogue has to have security during Shabbat. More broadly, he points to a woeful failure of educators to teach young people what really happened during the Holocaust — and what it is be a Zionist and what it is to be a Jew.

As a humanist — someone who believes everyone should be treated with the same dignity and respect — Kelly prefers that DEI be dropped entirely. “This desire to pigeonhole people from their various identities — intersectionality — frankly, I do mental gymnastics trying to understand it.” I find myself nodding in agreement. We both have experience with diversity mandates that do little to bring people together, and only serve to reinforce the layers of difference between people.

Deeply skeptical of diversity mandates, Kelly elaborates: “It is very much an attempt to direct discourse in a way that echoes the narrative established by an elite group that identifies what is acceptable and what is not, and it’s definitely not a democratic or inclusive approach. It’s very much achieved through a small group of intellectual elites driven largely by Marxist revolutionary ideology.” And, he adds, there’s lots of research showing that Marxism works hand-in-hand with antisemitism.

Tents and fences being put up on a university campus.
An anti-Israel encampment, now dismantled, being erected at the University of Calgary on May 9. “This is not a grassroots movement. This is an organized effort,” Prof. Kelly Sundberg says of such endeavours.Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Why, I enquire, are we not seeing anti-Israel encampments on the campuses of technical schools, for example, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary or the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton? When I listen to the protesters, it’s largely the arts educators and students at universities who are fired up. At both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta — where police have removed encampments — protesters in the arts faculties are still calling for the presidents of those institutions to step down.

Kelly has spoken to colleagues across the globe, and reports: “They’re not seeing it (encampments) at the technical schools in Australia, New Zealand or the EU or the United States or here.” And the hypothesis that’s gaining traction is that protests “have been driven by an academic agenda within the arts, within the social sciences and humanities, where we see this very narrow view of society, again through the Marxist lens, this notion of the struggle. There’s the oppressor and the oppressed, and in any conflict, there’s this belief you have to have a victim and an oppressor.”

Increasingly, the Jewish community in Canada is speaking up, Kelly observes, describing how Ernest Rady, a Jewish billionaire born and raised in Winnipeg who made a $30-million donation to the University of Manitoba, publicly objected to a recent valedictorian’s speech at the med school censuring Israel for genocide.

And at MRU, longstanding Holocaust education hosted on campus by Calgary’s Jewish community was halted in response to MRU’s decision to award a coveted peace prize to Mohammed El-Kurd, a promoter of virulent antisemitism. MRU has been cautiously stepping away from the peace prize, Kelly relates, “trying to allow it to drift into obscurity.”

“To be entirely silent on this is what in fact emboldens, and amplifies, the external players who spread antisemitism and Jew-hate — that ultimately we’re seeing unfold in attacks on individuals and communities in Toronto, even here in Calgary and Vancouver and throughout the world,” Kelly concludes.

“If you have an encampment in the middle of your campus with people calling for global intifada — which is this celebration of suicide bombing and murder — and the (university) president remains silent, what is wrong? It’s bizarre. It’s confusing, in fact,” Kelly asserts.

To remain silent is not leadership, he concludes. “It’s administration. And it’s cowardly administration.”

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