Confused Student Claims Her Jewish Professor Is Anti-Semitic

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A student at York University in Toronto accused her professor of making an anti-Semitic statement during class. Pretty commendable to stand up against that, right? Except that the professor wasn’t being anti-Semitic.

During a Monday lecture in his “Social Sciences 1140: Self, Culture and Society” course, Professor Cameron Johnston, who has taught at the university for more than 30 years, was providing examples of unacceptable and dangerous opinions, citing “All Jews should be sterilized” as a belief that is deplorable.

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One of his students, 22-year-old Sarah Grunfeld, thought Johnston was stating this as his personal opinion. Instead of raising her hand to ask for clarification, she abruptly stormed out of class and informed an Israel advocacy group that her professor was an anti-Semite. Press releases were churned out and sent to Jewish groups and the media, calling for Johnston’s firing. The campaign instantly went viral.

Johnston, who also happens to be Jewish, is “terribly upset,” he told the Toronto Star on Tuesday. “I’m very proud of the fact that in the history of my teaching career I’ve stood for the best values of what constitutes a meaningful human community.”

In his response to the allegations, he did note one silver lining in the strange ordeal: “It’s a very good thing that people are sensitive to this kind of remark, and I think it’s a very good thing that someone would respond immediately and deal with it if they thought that they heard an anti-Semitic comment,” said Johnston, who teaches social sciences and humanities.

“But in this case,” he added, “it’s a misreading.”

Several media reports are siding with the Toronto professor, and believe Grunfeld grossly misunderstood her teacher because she wasn’t listening or paying attention.

So did Grunfeld eventually apologize for the embarrassing blunder? Not at all.

“The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious,” Grunfeld said. She also has doubts that her professor is even Jewish.

“Whether he is or is not, no one will know,” she concluded. “Maybe he thought because he is Jewish he can talk smack about other Jews.”

After the story spread to several news outlets, Grunfeld issued a statement (via Gawker):

I stand by my initial concern brought to the University’s attention immediately after the incident that when Professor Cameron Johnston made the abhorrent statement in his class that all Jews should be sterilized, he failed to qualify the statement clearly as an unacceptable opinion held by others. His delivery of this statement, made in a class of 450 impressionable students, was offensive to me and to others in the room.

I have since been grossly misquoted and ridiculed by the media, and attempts have been made to assign blame to me with the false claim that I simply “misheard” or “half heard” what was said. Meanwhile, the professor has not been called to account in any way for his “miscommunication”.

This is in spite of the fact that in a meeting with Martin Singer, Dean, (Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York) and Rhonda Lenton (Vice Provost Academic), I was assured that they believed Professor Johnston was ‘terribly regretful’, and that they expected and would encourage him to issue an unambiguous in-class apology. I have not heard even minimal expressions of regret by Professor Johnston, and a York university representative in subsequent communications with the media, has since contradicted the assurances I was given to that effect.

It has been a very painful experience for me to see how the university has closed ranks and reneged on its assurances to me. I understand that there may have been a miscommunication, but any miscommunication was on the part of the professor, not me. The media has been complicit in allowing a false interpretation of my actions to be circulated widely, which can only have a chilling effect on the ability of students to have any kind of a voice on campus.

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Kai Ma is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @Kai_Ma or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.