Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Academic circus

Gary Goodyear, Minister for Science and Technology, recently called for the reconsideration of a $20,000 grant for a conference about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at York University. In response, James Turk, president of the Canadian University Teachers Association, called for Goodyear’s resignation.

The two men are just doing their jobs. Goodyear represents the people of Canada. He had reason to believe that “Israel/Palestine Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace” might be more a propaganda exercise than an academic conference, and so he questioned whether Canadians should pay for the event.

For his part, Turk represents university teachers. His job is to get as much money as he can for the country’s universities and professors, preferably with no questions asked and no strings attached.

Speakers at the supposedly academic conference represented a rogue’s gallery of anti-Israel activists. For example, no one would mistake Ali Abunimah for an academic. He’s a professional propagandist and the co-founder of Electronic Intifada, a website that glamorizes terrorism as "resistance" and considers all of Israel occupied Palestinian territory.

Abunimah didn’t merely give a talk at the York conference. He was a member of the advisory committee, responsible for recommending the conference speakers. I'm not as familiar with the other organizers, but I'm confident that if David Duke (former Grand Wizard of the Klan) were on a committee recommending speakers for a conference about the future of the American South and what to do about tensions between Blacks and Whites, nobody would be saying, "But he's only one of the organizers – the rest aren't as bad."

Of course, when he called for Goodyear’s resignation, Turk didn’t go into details about what Abunimah and other anti-Israel activists were doing at a supposedly academic conference. He simply wrapped himself in the banner of academic freedom. This isn’t a convincing stance.
First, there’s bad blood between the CAUT and Goodyear. When the government budgeted an extra $2 billion for university infrastructure, the CAUT chose to complain about a $148 million cut to research funding. The CAUT met with Goodyear to press their case, but according to a CAUT official, Goodyear eventually: “stormed out of the room warning that we’ve burned all our bridges with them.”

With this fight over money already poisoning the relationship, it’s not surprising Turk found an excuse to call for Goodyear’s resignation.

Second, CAUT stands up for academic freedom only if it fits their self-interest or political bias. When the University and Colleges Union in Britain called for the blacklisting of Israeli scholars, most university presidents across Canada and hundreds of Canadian professors decried the move as an outrage against academic freedom (not to mention a clear cut case of bigotry). But the CAUT kept quiet.

I could understand if the CAUT felt they had no business meddling in Middle Eastern politics, but in fact, the CAUT issued a statement just this past January condemning Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Strangely, in the year preceding the offensive, as thousands of Palestinian rockets and mortars rained down on Israeli towns, the CAUT issued no statements condemning this terrorism, nor even a friendly warning that sooner or later the Israelis were sure to respond.

The CAUT statement singled out Israel’s bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza, but didn’t object to Hamas having turned the school into a bomb-making factory. Nor did the CAUT ever condemn the Palestinian rocket attack on Sapir College in the Negev – an attack that killed a student there.

The CAUT also condemns Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank. These checkpoints have proven effective at stopping suicide attacks. But while preventing mass murder, checkpoints also make students late for school, and so the CAUT calls for Israel to take them down.

Third, politicizing the campus doesn’t enhance academic freedom; it restricts it. For Jews, York University is already hostile territory. The Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario’s infamous motion to boycott Israel originated with the CUPE local at York, with people who consider all of Israel occupied Palestinian territory.

Two of the prime movers of CUPE’s boycott resolution were Rafeef Zadiah and Adam Hanieh, both of whom spoke at the Israel/Palestine conference.

York also hosts an annual anti-Israel hate-fest, known as Israel Apartheid Week. Jewish students have been threatened by fellow students and harassed by instructors. And in February, a mob chased a group of mostly Jewish students, shouting: “Israelis off campus,” “Racist Zionists,” “Die, bitch, go back to Israel,” “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus,” “Fucking Jew” and so forth.

The mob then besieged the Jewish students in the local Hillel office until the police arrived and freed them.

If the CAUT were really interested in academic freedom, James Turk would be battling to preserve the campus as place for open inquiry, free of intimidation. He’d be condemning professors who use their podium to indoctrinate students. And he would have been the first in line to ask whether this conference at York really met the standards of academic inquiry.

The conference turned out pretty much as everyone expected; that is, it was largely given over to demonizing Israel. According to reports (here and here for starters), speakers presented Israel as a racist, apartheid state, as a military machine intent on dominating the Palestinians, as an illegitimate entity that ought to be replaced.

At the conference, the Palestinians were presented purely as victims. The possibility that they might share some responsibility for the conflict simply wasn’t entertained. And although the conference was subtitled “Paths to Peace,” there was no discussion about re-invigorating the peace process.

“Zionists” were blamed even for domestic violence perpetrated by Palestinian men against Palestinian women.

As for the few speakers who were sufficiently well-meaning to express sympathy for Israel, they were jeered and heckled.

Before receiving funding, the conference did go through a peer review process. Evidently that process didn’t work. As Professor Martin Lockshin of York University put it: “[The peer review process] failed to distinguish between political activism and academic research” (here).

Why didn’t Andrew Turk concern himself about whether the conference at York might really be a propaganda event? Because for the CAUT, academic freedom is a rhetorical device, not a real concern.

Still, even by the light of the CAUT’s grab the money and run philosophy, Turk should notice that the shenanigans at York are turning away donors and may end up costing the university millions. Indeed, one professor at York already objects to “Zionists” being involved in fund-raising.

More generally, if it wants Canadians to be enthusiastic about funding university research, the CAUT should be doing its best to insure that money is spent well, not squandered on an anti-Israel circus.


A shorter version of this article previously appeared in the July 2, 2009, Jewish Tribune, a community paper published weekly by B'nai Brith Canada, on the Dust My Broom blog, and on Harry's Place in Britain

1 comment:

  1. I read this article and I do think you are right. Universities cannot be bias. Hate conferences are out of place. I am not a Jew and I am not Palestinian or even middle eastern, however as a Canadian I have to say that I have Jews and Palestinians in m y street, as my neighbours and they are friends. Some are even related by marriage to each other. And there is no Hate or racism. All of them get together in the Street Year Barbecue we all host, and share their food and their traditional music and folk stories. When we addressed them about the conflict between the two countries, they just say: "Unfortunately the conflict does not have to do with the little people. The conflict only has to do with politicians and troublemakers and the world outside that takes sides and through the media expand their ideas on the situation."
    "But why don't you the people do something about it?"
    Yes we do , we even get married to each other as you can see. But the world does not want that."
    So it is the duty of a University to enlight the people of Canada about the situation, not to take sides. Freedoom of expression yes, but in a constructive way , where both sides take part and can express their opinions in the matter.
    Thank you for your thoughts in the matter.
    Continue writing.
    I am a Canadian trying to understand that conflict that is been tearing family lives apart for so many years.