Universities are supposed to promote controversial ideas.
It’s their proper role to present ideas that push students out of their comfort zone, extend the bounds of their thinking and force them to see the limits of their own life experience.
That’s why first-year students have a tendency to crack up or undergo radical ideological changes that terrify parents—everything they know about life is suddenly challenged.
This foundational purpose explains why universities provide a natural platform for discussions about controversial issues. So it shouldn’t be surprising that next week York University will host a conference entitled, “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.”
But the same purpose that supports York’s right to host this event also reveals the farce behind presenting it as an academic enterprise. Every indication is that there will be very little debate or stretching of minds. NGOs even get a discount on registration fees, suggesting this event is more related to political activism than academics.
The speakers, their biographies and the topics all suggest the model to statehood and peace has been predetermined—and wiping Israel off the map under the guise of a “one state solution” will be a frequent topic of conversation.
The title of one abstract claims “perhaps there is no solution.” But any notion of promoting an open discussion ends with its concluding comment that “the Israeli experiment, in light of (its) nuclear arsenal and opportunity to leave the country enjoyed by its elite may end with a bang, a prolonged whimper, or both.” Ouch.
It’s not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel or its actions. It is anti-Semitic when people deny Israel’s right to exist, hold it to different standards than other nations and flagrantly criticize it in a public forum with no countering perspective.
This has been made possible by Canadian taxpayers and a grant of about $20,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (that gives grants to university-based researchers).
The Hon. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, responded to concerns about funding the conference by encouraging the SSHRC to look over the application again. He doesn’t have—and didn’t seek—the power to revoke the grant, but that was the cue for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) to cry political interference in the academic enterprise and demand his resignation (again).
That’s when an interesting letter appeared in our national papers. Dr. Eric Lawee, a humanities professor at York, said the CAUT’s cry of political interference on academic freedom was “a bit rich” considering it was so quick to defend the York conference, yet failed to defend Israeli professors when a British academic union wanted to ban Jewish academics from Britain and cease any collaboration with Israeli universities. The American Association of University Professors spoke against the ban, as did—believe it or not—the Palestinian Al Quds University in Jerusalem. But the Canadian scholars were silent.
So who’s crossed the line between political activism and academics?
The CAUT wouldn’t stand up against a boycott of Jewish scholars and universities, yet was quick to cry academic freedom and defend the speakers at the York conference who Lawee says includes “a who’s who of Israel bashers, some of whom lack any academic credentials and one of whom is a leader in the movement to boycott Israeli academics.”
There has been much discussion of how the undesirable anti-Semitism has gained new life and respect on Canadian campuses under the guise of anti-Israel rhetoric. Heck, Israel Apartheid Week has become an annual event at most universities.
How is it that the ideology of hate and intolerance has usurped tolerance and academic freedom on Canadian campuses?
Carleton University Professor Peter Emberley believes that we’ve lost the idea of a university being both a universitas (an association that pursues/promotes common interests) and a civitas (an association bound by the rules of civic decencies like civility, tolerance, free speech, and freedom with responsibility).
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that our universities have long ceased to be civil associations that promote tolerance—even though we may still idolize them as such. They’ve done a good job in promoting ideas—but failed to promote them within the bounds of civility and civil discourse that have long characterized institutions of higher learning. Without rules, even the exchange of ideas can become a free-for-all that benefits no one.