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Thursday, October 23, 2014

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‘Israel lobby’ stifles campus speech: report

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A new report commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers denounces the so-called “Israel lobby” for its alleged efforts to stifle debate and academic freedom.

No Debate: Israel Lobby and free speech at Canadian universities, written by University of New Brunswick professor emeritus Jon Thompson, was released last week. It’s based on the controversy that surrounded the 2009 conference called Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace at York University.

The conference was co-sponsored by York and Queen’s universities as part of York’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. Critics opposed the event because while it was billed as an academic dialogue about achieving peace in the Middle East, most of the speakers – some of whom are active in the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel – presented a one-state solution as the only viable option for peace.

Among the speakers were Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian BDS campaign against Israel, and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, a website that posts articles accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and of being an apartheid state.

Thompson told The CJN that the CAUT-commissioned, but independent, report, which is being sold as a book, “tries to put the controversy in a general context and not just in the context concerning Israel and Palestine, but broader controversies involving academic events and the history of academic freedom.”

The book highlights the events leading up to the conference, analyzes “the implications of some of the events” and makes recommendations “for defending academic freedom” on university campuses.

Thompson was also critical of what he calls the “Israel lobby,” which he said tries to “limit freedom of expression by others.”

He named the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) as being part of the lobby.

CIJA senior vice-president Howard English said he’s disturbed by Thompson’s use of the term.

“It’s a slur that is designed to promote the myth that anyone who supports Israel controls the actions of government and other institutions. It’s a deplorable term, and we object strongly to its usage and all that it implies.”

But Thompson countered that members of the so-called lobby “denounce critics of their activities for saying that there is an Israel lobby, but at the same time, boast on their website that they are very effective in influencing government policy.”

English also clarified that CIJA’s opposition to the conference had less to do with the subject matter and more to do with that fact that it “did not meet rigorous academic standards.”

He said a number of the speakers weren’t academic scholars and did not warrant endorsement and sponsorship by York and Queen’s.

“On top of that, the conference was completely unbalanced. It primarily highlighted those who promote a one-state solution, and anyone speaking in favour of a two-state solution, including [University of Haifa law professor] Na’ama Carmi was intimidated or labelled a racist.”

Following the conference, Carmi wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star describing “an atmosphere that was totally incompatible with academic discourse,” and said there were attempts “to silence unpopular views… At times, those presenting a different view were subject to abuse and ridicule.”

Although Thompson concluded in his report that York “upheld and protected the academic freedom of the conference organizers and the academic integrity of the conference program,” he published an e-mail from current York provost Patrick Monahan, then the dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, to conference organizers Susan Drummond and Bruce Ryder.

A seemingly frustrated Monahan urged them to bring balance to the conference by securing speakers who oppose a one-state solution.

“Given the current lineup of speakers, there is a perceived lack of balance in the approaches being taken. I hasten to add that this is not for lack of trying, as you have invited a significant number of speakers who would allow for the desired balance and have been unsuccessful in getting them to sign on,” Monahan wrote.

“But I thought we had agreed that, regardless of the reasons, there is a problem with the overall balance in the speakers and it was therefore important to add at least one other speaker who would be a strong advocate of a two-state solution,” Monahan wrote. Despite Monahan’s assertion that the conference was one-sided, it went ahead as planned. Thompson applauded York’s decision to host the conference despite many calls to cancel it.

York president Mamdouh Shoukri said in a statement that he was pleased with Thompson’s conclusion, adding, “I welcome this recognition of our commitment to the fundamental values of free inquiry and academic freedom at the university and affirm our continuing commitments in this regard.”

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