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Book Review: No Debate: The Israel lobby and free speech at Canadian universities

By Jon Thompson Lorimer, 2011 ISBN 978-1-55277-656-8 Reviewer: Chandler Davis

It should be obvious to the most casual observer that in Canada today criticism of Israeli policy is controversial. However factual and indisputable such criticism is, it immediately becomes controversial because a corps of defenders of the Israeli government springs into action to denounce it. This pattern is repeated with dreary predictability, and no doubt grow unimportant to some bystanders simply because it is tedious.

If it remains controversial, we can keep debating it. (However, to keep it more interesting, all sides might undertake to enliven it with new arguments.) Nonetheless, this controversy is often not a debate, and this is the central point of the book at hand. Instead of debate, the Israeli advocates attempt to deny the critics a hearing, and at this point the tradition of academic and political freedom must be made part of the discourse. It must be emphasized that Israeli supporters have succeeded in classifying criticism of Israeli policy as controversial, and so they have won this part of the argument!

The next challenge is how to handle the controversy. It is not fair to dismiss the critics with a raised eyebrow by stating George Galloway is so controversial or Noam Chomsky is so controversial! However, how do we handle controversy? Snort and turn away?

Rather, we democrats welcome controversy. We foster it. As progress in culture generally is nurtured by debating different opinions, we should provide friendly arenas for such confrontation, and pay it due respect and attention. This answer is true, deeply so, but it is not the entire answer.

Let’s face it: some disreputable opinions deserve their disrepute and cannot give birth to valuable insights no matter what the arena, no matter who their disputant. Though it is not fair for loyal Israeli partisans to dismiss a critic unheard, it is fair for them to demand that the critic establish credibility.

The trouble with the simple assertion of welcoming dissent is that it is so very hard to implement in practice. “You can’t think that, of course,” said the Christian or Jew to the atheist in pre-Enlightenment Europe, and the time their viewpoint seemed too obvious to contest. A point of view really can be shouted down—literally shouted down—at any forum, for the moment, but also figuratively for a lifetime. It is hard to recognize what thoughts are even possible. Let ideas contest in the arena of public opinion, but what ideas are allowed entry into the arena?

The defense of academic freedom requires defending the right of a view to be given a hearing—some views, that is. I don’t want to give a university platform to the thesis that the Earth was created six thousand years ago; and yet three hundred years ago the cause of free thought would have demanded giving that view a hearing (but already then one might have struggled to get a hearing also for the opposing view). Today, many of us would defend giving a hearing to both sides in, say, the desirability of the long gun registry. The question is to what issues does the stance of open-mindedness apply? And the question is not easy.

In the case of loyalty to Israel, the difficulty is personally painful in my experience and the experience of many of us. “I can’t talk about the Middle East with my family,” say many Canadians today (especially Israeli émigrés, but we hear the same far beyond that small community). Naturally, those families where criticism of the Israeli government is not a legitimate component of conversation may think it normal to try to de-legitimize it in a public forum too. “What— are you defending gas chambers?” they may say, at least implicitly, and think the exclusion too obvious to contest.

Now, I have said that these are difficult questions, and even if the immunity of Israel to criticism were the only instance of challenge to academic freedom before us, a full and balanced analysis would be beyond the scope of one book. The author of a book such as “No Debate” is faced with an insoluble quandary. Here is how Jon Thompson deals with it.

He describes one case among many of recent attempts to forestall academic debate on Palestine. He gives ample discussions—philosophical, political, and practical—of the larger context, but he segregates those into a few chapters rather than weaving them into the narrative as he might have tried to do. The reader is not allowed to forget them but is left the task of finding their application. Jon Thompson takes his one case and treats it in full detail; and for all his breadth of vision, he does not deal with it as a historian. Rather, he treats it juridically. He is looking for verifiable violations of standards of academic and societal freedom, with identifiable culprits.

At this point I have to lay on the table my relation to the author. In one sense, I am much too close to Jon Thompson to qualify as a reviewer of this book. Not only do I know him and value his friendship, I admire him enormously, and feel gratitude which I hope most others share for his service in past independent inquiries such as the Fabrikant case at Concordia University and the Olivieri case at the University of Toronto. I am terribly predisposed in his favour. Well, perhaps his example of judicious treatment of these cases will inspire me to be sufficiently judicious toward the present book.

In another sense, I am very far removed from Thompson’s approach. His task is to assign blame only where blame can, in his reading, be assigned beyond reasonable doubt. This is part, but only part, of what readers need to do in order to live on our discordant campuses. I will argue below that we need to supplement such a quasi-judicial account as this, no matter how well done, and Thompson does it very well indeed.

There is a third respect in which you might wonder about my closeness to the author. I am partisan on this issue. To me, the critics of Israeli policy are, on the whole, correct. To me, the testimony and analysis of speakers like Amira Hass, Omar Barghouti, Uri Davis, Noam Chomsky, Eyad El-Serraj, and Ilan Pappe are especially convincing. (I cite only a few illustrative voices, and I know they needn’t invariably agree.) Now I don’t know whether Jon Thompson is in their camp. It is not part of his mission to take a stand on Near Eastern politics. It is essential to his deliberation that he puts this sort of view in the category of views deserving a hearing, and he does that, but it is not essential for him to accept or reject them, and he doesn’t. As I am grateful for his impartiality, I applaud his setting aside his own conclusions.

I reserve the right, for sure, to hash this whole mess over with him some time next year! If he wants to air his policy conclusions to me after closing the examination of the case, it will be a pleasure to have it out with him. For now, for the duration of this review, he has fully neutral status.

The episode under study in this book is the planning of a conference “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace” at the Glendon Campus of York University for June 2009. The organizers were in the Law Schools of York and Queen’s; the project had from the outset sponsorship by York University, Queen’s, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The scheme of the conference, as drawn up at the outset, was to give the history and rationale of alternative models of peaceful resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict: so-called one-state as well as two-state models. Scholars of diverse political persuasions were invited, from Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere.

Criticism began as soon as the conference was announced, and intensified in the spring of 2009. The criticism came from two professors who had been scheduled speakers but withdrew complaining that other speakers would be “Israel-bashers”. The condemnation came from pro-Israel organizations such as the Jewish Defence League (JDL), the Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, and B’nai Brith; and they came from many “angry individuals”. York’s leaders, including President Mamdouh Shoukri, Dean Patrick Monahan, and Chair of the Board of Governors, Marshall Cohen, at first expected to weather the storm without difficulty, but by mid-May they were sufficiently concerned to take seriously the calls for postponement of the conference, or for moving it off campus, or for changing the roster of speakers. Indeed, permission to hold it at Glendon was withdrawn at one point, to the dismay of the organizers! They were given to understand that the Glendon location was contingent on changes in the speakers and in the composition of the committee. After what must have been a very confusing week, the Glendon location was reinstated without major sacrifices by the organizers. Meanwhile, the critics found a receptive ear in the Conservative government, which formally called on the SSHRC to give the conference grant a second evaluation; the SSHRC managed to avoid doing the whole peer review process anew.

The conference was held 22-24 June, pretty much as originally conceived, with many of the originally invited speakers and a few additions. Nobody picketed or disrupted. However, criticisms continued, most conspicuously from Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg of Bar Ilan University. The theme of the criticism was first that one-state models were allowed on the table, and second, that the speakers included a few people the critics considered anti-Israel “activists”; the tone of much of the criticism was shrill. Yes, there were speakers at the conference opposing the one-state solution along with those supporting it, but this did not appease the critics one whit, nor did the fact that many speakers supported Israel as a Jewish state. The university, according to many of the attackers, ought never to have allowed such a conference to take place.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) had been contacted by the organizers several times to intercede when the independence of the conference seemed threatened. After it had been held, in reasonable autonomy, the CAUT realized that academic freedom had at least been compromised, and commissioned this inquiry. Professor Thompson laboured long and patiently, as he had learned to do in other inquiries; he got cooperation from most of those involved but not all; and he produced this splendid report, comprehensive, fair, and often subtle.

He has no trouble in determining that the Israel-first forces were attacking the freedom to study Israeli-Palestinian society, for they proclaim their intention of excluding from the universities a wide of range of non-Zionist opinion (and some Zionist). What needs investigation is the uncertain fidelity of those in power to the defense of academic freedom. The investigation consists of interviews, scrutiny of the documentary record, revisiting of the subject to be studied, and an insightful re-examination of the tradition of academic freedom itself.

Let me not keep up the suspense. I’ll tell you the bottom line. In the conclusion, some blame is cast.

As expected, Minister Gary Goodyear’s heavy-handed demand for SSHRC to reconsider the conference grant comes in for condemnation. Perhaps more surprisingly, the report on the case to York by ex-Justice Frank Iacobucci is shown convincingly to be bizarrely unfair. But the main focus is on the disorderly scramble over several months by the President, his deanery, his board, and his donors to behave appropriately in an air of crisis. Here, the report concludes that on certain occasions Dean Monahan made inappropriate demands on the organizers to change their plans to appease critics, and used the threat of the withdrawal of administration support to increase pressure on them. The President, who after some indecision made a strong affirmation of the legitimacy of the conference, is not faulted. Procedural recommendations are made as well; even these are restrained.

Does this sound like a weak ending to a dramatic tale? I assure you, readers who take the trouble to trace the ins and outs will not be bored.

So four earnest legal scholars thought they’d have a scholarly conference on a current topic, they applied for sponsorships and grants and got them, they held the conference, and wise words were shared.

Though some offences were committed against their right to do so, they prevailed. This is a success story.

Yes, it is, and I join in celebrating it. It was a success against powerful enemies, and it was made possible in part by the steadfastness of the organizers and their allies, and by the timely intervention of CAUT. However, at this point I part ways with Prof. Thompson, as I told you I would have to do, for I am not bound by the mandate he was given, and on a wider mandate I must ask some questions he did not.

I call on you to consider whether open exchange of views on the future of Israel and Palestine was advanced by the experience. Yes, the conference itself was a positive contribution. Yes, the victory over attempts to quash or denature the event can inspire our courage for the next attempts. But the story confronts us with an unmistakable, daunting warning that there will be great obstacles to overcome. This success in bucking the Israel lobby may put almost as severe a chill on future organizing initiatives as would a failure.

The anti-conference furor—and remember, I am not talking about any position in the controversy, I am talking about opposition to any airing of all sides in the controversy—enlisted some members of the administration, several influential members of the faculty, and potentially some donors.

The President, surrounded by demands for repression coming from within his own organization as well as from external pressure groups, could see the virtue of resisting, but would have to weigh it against possible damage to his institution, damage he could escape by capitulating. No wonder he hesitated, and gave sometimes confusing messages before taking the moral stand.

How much comfort does this give us for the future? Another time, the pressures will be repeated, and some of the features that helped save this conference may be missing.

First, the organizers this time stayed alert and responded promptly to challenges. It was not enough to make a good plan and carry it out; they needed to respond to unexpected assaults, and they did.

Second, there were some bits of good luck. One that stands out, to me, is the Chair of the Board, Marshall Cohen. Though his first reaction was to find the negative messages familiar and plausible, he kept his equilibrium and ended by taking a fair position. I cringe at the thought of what might have been with a different Chair.

Third, the conference was conceived from the beginning as a comparison of various proposed policies for the Near East, not as an exposition of any one. This is a good kind of public meeting, but it is not the only good kind. As I already mentioned, I have opinions on Israel and Palestine myself, I hear too few commentators I think make sense, and I am especially concerned to make those heard. Some of the meetings I have helped to bring to Toronto have presented opposing opinions, but some have not. At Jeff Halper’s talks [Jeff Halper is co-founder and Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHS)], there was no speaker favouring demolition of Palestinian houses. At Eyad El-Serraj’s talks [El-Sarraj is a Palestinian Gazan psychiatrist] there was no speaker favouring war or siege of Gaza. At Matan Kaminer’s talk on resisting the occupation of the West Bank by refusing military service there was no speaker favouring the occupation or service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); however, to be sure, opposing remarks could be made from the floor. These were one-sided presentations. That did not invalidate them as contributions to campus exchange of ideas.

Now one-sided presentations are a commonplace on our campuses. In passing, the book under review describes one at the Munk Centre, 8-9 March 2009, featuring as speakers some of the same people who were trying to squelch the York conference; this event was almost as it sided with Zionist policy, not balanced by any other view.

Some of the administrators and senior academics who threatened to close down the York conference softened their opposition when they saw the wide spectrum of opinion it presented. They would have been adamant in opposition, I fear, if they had not had to concede that it was “balanced”. They might have joined the JDL in trying to prevent (say) Omar Barghouti or Judith Butler from speaking without “balance”. Even sadder— they might not have seen any inconsistency in also approving the one-sided March affair at the Munk Centre.

We should defend not only our freedom to hold a balanced meeting but also our freedom to advocate. We should expect to have to fight for it.

Chandler Davis has been in Science for Peace from its early days, has been a math professor at University of Toronto since 1962, coming here as a refugee from his native USA.

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