York University vs. Israel: "Academic Freedom" or Academic Farce? [Updated]
The President of York University in Toronto has issued a statement attempting to defend his university’s sponsorship of an event headlined “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace”, scheduled for June 22 to 24. This response to intense criticism of the program attempts to portray serious criticism as an attack on academic freedom. However, in examining the details and the debate over this event, and in the context of vulgar anti-Israel activities and physical intimidation of Jewish students at York, these bland words are a diversion — a straw man aimed at deflecting criticism, and blocking the important public debate over the role of university campuses as battlefields in the Arab-Israeli narrative wars that perpetuate the violent conflict.
York’s defense seeks to answer the public statement issued by Hershell Ezrin, head of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA). This analysis was based on a careful examination of the speakers and their topics, which reveals that this conference “aims to explore a one-state, bi-national solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the imposition of which would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The conference will include a number of speakers who are recognizable for their roles as organizers and outspoken proponents of ‘Israel apartheid week’ and the Israel boycott movement.”
Far from an attack on academic freedom, such criticism highlights the very absence of the free exchange in a marketplace of ideas which is the indispensible foundation for academic freedom. The extremely complex history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and multiple dimensions of peace efforts contrast starkly with the narrowly constricted ideologies reflected in the list of 44 speakers. This information is readily available using the internet, and had the eleven sponsors — six from York, four from Queen’s university and a government funded research framework — exercised “due diligence”, they would have found that many of the speakers are virulent anti-Israeli activists, and are far removed from academic work to understand complex issues through research and debate. In other words, it is the conference that constitutes a brutal attack on academic freedom, rather than the analysts and critics. Amidst the long list of speakers, there are a few genuine academics – whom critics might dismiss as fig leaves for the hard-core propagandists — but even here, the ideological range runs from strongly critical of Israel (but accepting the legitimacy of Jewish sovereign equality) to extremely critical (one-state promoters, tantamount to “wiping Israel off the map”.) Although there are many academics whose research goes beyond one-dimensional Israel bashing, and examines the failures of Arab, Palestinian, and Moslem leaders to contribute to peace making, these dimensions are conspicuously absent from the program. In this Orwellian twist, the use of “academic freedom” is a mask for the crude censorship at York.
With so many obvious distortions, the defense offered by the President of York University is a farce. Without a free market of ideas, academic freedom, and even the concept of a university, is meaningless. Given a conference which fails to even hint at the complexity of the issues, the result is not censorship, but the transformation of the university into a macabre circus that sells hatred, martyrdom and murder.
In a free society, the circus, like the university, is open to all – as P.T. Barnum observed, “There’s a sucker born every minute”. But in the Middle East, such farces will only serve to fuel the vicious warfare and mass terror which has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis, Palestinians, and others, and is escalating into nuclear confrontation. And York University has become an accomplice in this crime.
List of Speakers
NGO Monitor will continue to provide updates on the list of speakers, stay tuned.
Meet the Speakers #1: Ali Abunimah
The first speaker on the list is Ali Abunimah, who runs a propaganda internet site known as the “Electronic Intifada”, specializing in demonization of Israel through articles such as “Why Israel won’t survive”. Abunimah is also affiliated with a political organization (PCHR) based in Gaza that systematically distorts and exploits the language of human rights – also to attack Israel. Abunimah’s groups frequently condone Palestinian terrorism using the euphemism of “resistance” and terms like “apartheid” and “racist” in reference to Israel – the exact opposite of promoting compromise and a two state solution. Attempts to feature speakers like Abunimah under the banner of peace research is dishonest, and rather than attempting to prevent this criticism by pretending that academic freedom is at stake, York university officials should welcome the analysis
Meet the Speakers #2: Jeff Halper
Jeff Halper is another veteran pro-Palestinian campaigner, far removed from any academic pursuits. He runs a small organization that claims to oppose the demolition of Palestinian houses, but most of his activities are aimed at generating support for the Palestinian narrative. He recently participated in sailing a few small boats from Cyprus to Hamas-controlled Gaza, hoping to engage in publicity-generating confrontations with the Israeli Navy. Halper often appears in support of Naim Ateek, whose speeches include classical antisemitic references, such as accusing Israel of “crucifying Palestinians”. The context of Palestinian mass terror attacks, the mangled bodies, and the hatred against Israelis that promotes this inhuman behavior, is entirely erased. An Israeli columnist recently witnessed Halper urging “his Muslim listeners in an American university to reject the Arab Peace Initiative, because it serves the Muslim tyrants. He told his listeners that Israel is actually a force that serves world capitalism, in the framework of the attempt to make enormous populations in the world disappear. The antisemites could not have said it better.” To label such activities as promoting peace or remotely connected to university discourse is an insult to intelligent people. Recently, Halper’s main benefactor, the European Union, rejected his application for renewed funding, but York University – for reasons yet to be explained – is giving him the façade of academic legitimacy.
Meet the Speakers #3: Omar Barghouti
Omar Barghouti is an open supporter of the one-state solution, as he has written: “Good riddance! The two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is finally dead. But someone has to issue an official death certificate before the rotting corpse is given a proper burial and we can all move on and explore the more just, moral and therefore enduring alternative for peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Mandate Palestine: the one-state solution,” including the right of return. Barghouti employs “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing” and “colonialism” rhetoric in his attacks on Israel. He is also a major proponent of anti-Israel boycotts.
Meet the Speakers #4: Uri Davis
Uri Davis calls himself a Palestinian Hebrew,and labels the Israeli-Arab conflict “[a] classic apartheid construction…between a settler-colonial state and an indigenous population dispossessed by the colonial project.” Davis also claims that “[w]hat the wall today represents is an attempt by the government of the State of Israel to cap the expulsion – the ethnic cleansing – perpetrated in the course of the 1948-49 war with a Bantustan solution for the rest of the country.” Uri Davis is also involved with Miftah, a group which disseminates the “Palestinian narrative and discourse globally.” Miftah has characterized Palestinian terrorists as “activists” and suicide bombings as “resistance”.
Meet the Speakers #5: Adam Hanieh
Adam Hanieh is a member of the Al Awda Right of Return Group and has termed the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario decision to “participate in the international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel” as a “step forward in the struggle against Israeli apartheid.” Hanieh has also worked for Defense for Children International/Palestine Section (DCI/PS), a group that exploits children’s rights, manipulates international law, and campaigns against Israel in the UN and other international forums. During the Gaza fighting, DCI/PS launched a website called “Gaza under attack” with news articles, videos and “figures and stories” about Israel’s “illegal act of aggression.”
Meet the Speakers #6: Hazem Jamjoum
Hazem Jamjoum is the Communications Officer for Badil, a radical NGO that promotes the so-called “right of return.” According to Badil, “the struggle against Israel’s colonial apartheid regime is one of the cornerstones of the struggle against state-sponsored racism and ongoing colonial policies worldwide.” Badil has been a leader in the BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement to isolate Israel internationally and encouraged “journalists to organize a targeted campaign to expose the lies of AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League and to expose the Jewish and Zionist community’s double standards regarding Nakba & Occupation.” Jamjoum has also chaired the Al Awda Palestine Right to Return Coalition in Canada, and helped organize Israeli Apartheid Week in 2005 and 2006 at the University of Toronto.
Meet the Speakers #7: Naeem Jeenah
Naeem Jeenah is the spokesperson for the South African Palestine Solidarity Committee, which demonizes Israel with rhetoric such as, “end the massacre in Gaza” and “isolate apartheid Israel.” Jeenah has written that “Israel is, quite simply, an apartheid ethnocracy” and argued that “[t]he only solution…is a single bi-national state.” Jeenah has also claimed that “[c]learly, Zionism is a theory of ethnic cleansing and racism” and referred to Israeli “state terrorism.”
Meet the Speakers #8: George Bisharat
George Bisharat is a Palestinian activist, who has served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority. He campaigns for boycotts of Israel, claiming “[i]f boycotting apartheid South Africa was appropriate, it is equally fair to boycott Israel on a similar record.” Bisharat promotes the Palestinian narrative, asserting the so-called “right of return” and other dubious allegations.
Meet the Speakers #9: Efrat Ben-Ze’ev
Efrat Ben-Ze’ev is an activist with Ta’ayush an NGO which campaigns on behalf of the Palestinian narrative, using demonizing language (references to the Israeli “siege” and “apartheid wall”), supporting boycotts and sanctions against Israel, and instigating confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Ben-Ze’ev also participated in a conference organized by Sabeel, a radical, Christian, Palestinian NGO. Ben-Ze’ev addressed Israeli views on the “Nakba” and advocated higher Israeli exposure to “the Palestinian rendering of 1948.” Meet the Speakers #10: Dana Olwan Dana Olwan has referred to “Zionist myths” and the “apartheid wall.” She has also accused Israel of “targeting and collective punishment of Palestinian civilians,” and claimed that Israel’s creation “was legitimized through racist Zionist narratives.” Olwan has also argued that “Israel continues to employ racist and exclusionary legislative policies that prevent the seven million Palestinians living in the diaspora from returning to their homeland.” Olwan is the national chair of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, which supported Israeli Apartheid Week.
Meet the Speakers #11: Mazin Qumsiyeh
Qumsiyeh co-founded the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, was on the steering committee of the US Campaign to End the Occupation and has been actively involved with BoycottIsraeliGoods.org and Sabeel North America – the NGO behind the church divestment movement. He accuses Israeli soldiers of acting “like Nazi guards in various situations,” and refers to the Palestinians as the “victims of Israeli colonialism” and the “apartheid wall.” Qumsiyeh’s website features a large image of all of Israel and the Palestinian Authority without borders, indicative of his support for a “one-state solution.”
Meet the Speakers #12: Marc H. Ellis
Marc Ellis uses Jewish symbols and language to promote a radical post-colonial ideology. He ascribes to a “Jewish theology of liberation,” accusing Zionism of representing “Constantinian Judaism” – “colonialism and imperialism.” Ellis frequently employs Nazi analogies in reference to Israel: “what the Nazis had not succeeded in accomplishing…we as Jews have embarked upon”; “[t]o speak of the Holocaust without confessing our sins towards the Palestinian people and seeking a real justice with them is a hypocrisy that debases us as Jews.” At Sabeel conferences, Ellis reportedly “display[ed] images of a helicopter gunship flying out of the Torah to document how Israeli use of force and sovereignty has affected Jewish identity.”
Meet the Speakers #13: Michael Lynk
Michael Lynk supports the use of “law as a weapon” against alleged Israeli breaches of international law. Lynk previously participated in a conference called “[o]ne State for Palestine/Israel: A country for all its citizens,” where he envisioned details of how a “one-state solution” (meaning the elimination of the state of Israel) would operate. The conference statement claimed that “the Israelis continue to extend the two-state solution discourse primarily to pursue sustained confiscation of Palestinian land and to pressure Palestinians to leave in order to reduce the proportion of Palestinians to Israeli Jews.”
Meet the Speakers #14: Smadar Lavie
Smadar Lavie is a founding member of the The Coalition Against Apartheid in Israeli Anthropology. Lavie has written that “Israel concurrently continues to plan and execute the socio-cide of both public and intimate spheres of the West Bank and Gaza… reaping the temporary unity of the Jewish victim-turned-warrior nation-state.” She has demonized Israel with rhetoric of “heinous carnage” and “genocide.”
Meet the Speakers #15: Nadim Rouhana
Nadim Rouhana is the head of Mada al-Carmel, an Israeli-Arab NGO that also helped compose a “statement of a collective vision that Palestinian citizens in Israel articulate about themselves” called the “Haifa Declaration” which refers to the “Zionist… colonial-settler project in Palestine,” calls for the Right of Return, expresses a one-state vision, and accuses Israel of “exploiting” the “tragedy” of the Holocaust “to legitimize the right of the Jews to establish a state at the expense of the Palestinian people”. Mada el-Carmel is part of the Ittijah coalition which used the rhetoric of “massacre,” “genocide,” and “extermination camp” regarding the Gaza War.
Meet the Speakers #16: Rafeef Ziadah
Rafeef Ziadah – anti-Israel activist based in Toronto, works for SUSTAIN (Stop U.S. Tax-Funded Aid to Israel Now), member of the “Coalition against Israeli Apartheid” which supports BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions), writes for “Electronic Intifada”. Ziadah uses demonizing language that refers to Israel as a “settler-colonial project” with a “system of apartheid”, and participated in the York University Israeli Apartheid Week.
Meet the Speakers #17: Leila Farsakh
Leila Farsakh supports a one state solution and claims that “[t]he area is heading to the abyss of an apartheid state system rather than to a viable two-state solution, let alone peace”. Farsakh also edited a book called “Commemorating the Naksa [term refers to results of the 1967 war] Evoking the Nakba” which claims that “the wall” “signaled the existence of the last apartheid regime of the 21st century” and says that Israel turned “the territories” into “incarceration camps” (Editor’s Note p.8). The book is dedicated to the memory of pro-Palestinian activist Prof. Edward Said. Frakash is also Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Massachusetts, Boston.