Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2009

Coordinated Campaign Aimed to Stifle Academic Discussion about Israel Raises Critical Questions

By Dorit Naaman
On June 11, 2009, B’nai Brith Canada published a full page ad in the National Post condemning York University for, among other things, hosting a confe­­rence titled “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.” The ad launched was a full scale assault on the academic process: it chastized York and Queen’s University for organizing an academic conference and questioned the peer review process at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding it. A day later, B’nai Brith issued a press release attacking conference presenters.

B’nai Brith was not alone. It joined forces with many organizations, including some with avowedly racist and violent agendas. In addition to the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto, the Jewish Defence League was enlisted in this concerted attack on the conference.

These organizations tried to drum up support through the mainstream organizations, asking Jews to write letters to the president of York and the chancellor of Queen’s pro-testing the event, and encouraging government agencies that had subjected the confe-rence’s program to a rigorous peer review process, to bow to political pressure to withhold already approved funding.

Indeed, in an unprecedented move, Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, pandered to pressure and asked SSHRC to convene a second peer review panel to determine whether the confe­rence was anti-Semitic (Globe and Mail, June 10, 2009).

While SSHRC, York, Queen’s and CAUT defended the conference’s right to take place under the principle of academic freedom, the attempt to silence open and critical debate needs to be examined carefully.

According to B’nai Brith “the conference questions the Jewish state’s right to exist,” and is a “virulent anti-Israel event.” The conference’s website, however, states its goals: “to explore which state models offer promising paths to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, respecting the rights to self-determination of both Israelis/Jews and Palestinians.”

The dominant model historically, and the sole one in the international community since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, was a two-state solution. But as the partition process was derailed, a democratic one-state model has resurfaced. Although the possibility of a one-state bi-national solution was very much in the minds of venerated Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber, B’nai Brith has determined that discussing alternative models is tantamount to destroying Israel.

The debate about the one state, or binationalism — a very lively one within Zionist circles pre-1948, when Jews formed only 30 per cent of Palestine’s population — is reemerging in Israel because of the political reality that Israel created.

Israelis know the one-state solution remains a pragmatic alternative, if not a favored ideological one. Israel is facing a demographic dilemma. It will soon have to decide whether to be Jewish or democratic. Indeed, while defending his decision to dismantle settlements in the Gaza strip in 2005, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon used a demographic argument to convey the urgency of the disengagement. The crisis is frequently discussed within the Israeli press (see for instance the June 20 National Post editorial “Deciding Israel’s Future.”

On June 4, 2009, the Israeli daily Haaretz published an editorial by mainstream liberal politician and longtime Knesset member Shulamit Aloni in which she quotes a letter Lord Rothschild sent in 1902 to Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. In the letter, Rothschild explained why he could not support a Jewish state in Israel. He wrote that he “should view with horror the establishment of a Jewish colony pure and simple; such a colony would be Imperium Imperio; it would be a Ghetto with the prejudice of the Ghetto; it would be a small petty Jewish state, orthodox and illiberal, excluding the Gentile and the Christian.”

Democracy itself lies in the balance. The success of openly racist and anti-Arab nationalist political party Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, brought this reality squarely into the centre of public discussion, by opponents and enthusiasts alike. Articles in Haaretz by Meron Benvenisti (April 30, 2009), Antony Lowenstein (June 21, 2009) and Shulamit Aloni (May 1, 2009 explore the implications of this turn. Jews outside of Israel cannot turn their backs on this reality, unless they expect to leave democracy in the hands of demagogues and racists. The situation for Israelis remains painful and requires sober choices about the direction of the state.

The mainstream Canadian Jewish organizations’ attempt to silence the York conference is in effect an attempt to silence discussion of this critical debate, which — ironically — is already taking place within Israel. This attempt is a disgraceful act meant to prevent Israelis, Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and others from speaking with one another in a serious academic forum. The accusations by B’Nai Brith that the York conference hosted presenters who “justify terrorism,” “advocate for the destruction of the Jewish state,” and “reject compromise” rely on partial quoting and false information.

The fact is that every attempt had been made to bring mainstream organizations to the conference. In the lead up to the event, Sharry Aiken, professor of law at Queen’s University and a conference organizer, met with the Canadian Jewish Congress to engage their interest and encourage participation from the community. During the conference Aiken outlined the discussions and mentioned congress officials suggested she meet with the Jewish Defence League.

Founded in 1986 by Rabbi Meir Kahane — the former leader of the openly racist Kach Party that was banned from the Israeli Knesset — the JDL and its followers have been responsible for violent attacks on Palestinians and Israelis inside Israel and in the United States. That the CJC suggested a meeting with this marginal racist organization signals its inclusion in the mainstream of North American Jewish discourse.

The attack on the York conference was part of a well-coordinated and well-financed trans-Atlantic strategy to prevent discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma in both the classroom and campus environment. In 2004 the Israel on Campus Coalition published a resource guide titled “Tenured or Tenuous: Defining the Role of Faculty in Supporting Israel on Campus.” The document was prepared Mitchell Bard, exec­utive director of the American-Israeli Co-operative Enterprise, and it can be found at

Along with Campus Watch, which asked students to spy on their professors and track their “anti Israeli” record on a public website, it is a shameful attempt to employ the tactics of McCarthyism to enforce the poli­tical ideology of a narrow spectrum of world Jewry and an even narrower Israeli public sector.

The document is a strategic response to the assessment that “The malignant teachings of anti-Israel ‘scholars’ spreads like a cancerous growth throughout the academy by way of publications and conferences.” (p. 10) Measures to be taken to remedy the “problem” are the creation of endowed chairs and Israel studies centres, the establishment of visiting Israel scholar programs, and the funding of graduate students and conferences.

The document openly talks about “careful and creative negotiations to maximize control over the appointment” of endowed chairs (p. 34) and the danger “that the endowed professor may change their views over time.” (p. 35) When discussing an Israel Scholar Development Fund the document says its “advisory board will screen Israeli applicants to insure they are able representatives of Israel.” (p. 37) And the strategic placement of Israel-related courses in Jewish studies departments “to give presumably more sympathetic academic committee control over the selection.” (p. 35)

The results of this strategy in the U.S. — not very different from the attacks on the York conference here in Canada — are outlined in an informative article in the Jewish progressive Tikkun Magazine titled “The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics,”

A few months ago I attended a conference on visual culture at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Bar-Ilan is a religious university and is considered conservative politically and hyper nationalist. Yet the conference papers — presented by Israeli Jews only — offered a range of sophisticated critiques of Israeli culture and state practices, many of which are much more radical than the analysis voiced at the York conference.

How can we educate our students and pursue world-class research when ethno-religious organizations launch well-financed and well-coordinated campaigns against research and discussion of these realities? Indeed, why should Canadian students and scholars enjoy fewer rights than Israelis?

Dorit Naaman is Alliance Atlantis Professor of Film and Media at Queen’s University.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime (