The President of Ontario’s York University, Mamdouh Shoukri, has taken an unambiguous stand for academic freedom. He has opposed the academic boycott of Israel, and is resolute against calls to intervene in the content of an upcoming conference, Israel/Palestine – Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace, an event which sounded promising but however has reportedly been commandeered to promote above all the idea of a single state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
After nearly three months, Shoukri has also reprimanded the ringleaders – one of whom was the popular York Federation of Students (YFS) incoming President Krisna Saravanamuttu – who mobbed their political opponents on February 11th. Jewlicious has background. Although the political differences here were ostensibly over YFS’ support for prolonged industrial action by contract teaching staff, some key ‘Drop YFS’ (opposition) members were also active in Israeli and Jewish student groups, and similar fault-lines had been observed over YFS’ response to Operation Cast Lead. This was exploited:
“A familiar political pattern is repeating itself at York. Student groups associated with Israel and hostile towards anyone expressing concern for Palestinian human rights are anchoring a campaign against the undergraduate student union, the York Federation of Students (YFS) and the clubs and social justice organizations associated with it. The public positions put forward by this campaign cannot be taken at face value.
Critics of Israeli crimes face the baseless charge of “anti-Semitism” from those happy to have their voices go hoarse crying wolf. But those who back off in the face of such intimidation merely pave the way for continued Western culpability in these crimes.”
Where there’s the opportunity, Israel is often invoked by anti-Zionist activists as a political wedge regardless of the discriminatory implications; read Ignoblus’ piece on anti-Zionism as an article of faith. It looks to have been like this at York. ‘Drop YFS’ supporters met to discuss the enthusiastic response to their petition to impeach the student executive for failure to represent the student body, and yet were subjected to calls of “Israelis off campus”, “racist Zionists”, “Die, bitch, go back to Israel”, “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus”, “Fucking Jew” and similar. Jewish students took refuge in Hillel House where they remained under siege until the police arrived. Saravanamuttu blamed Jewish campus groups (Jews comprise 10% of the student population) for the aggression of which Jews were the victims:
Shoukri’s reprimand came late and Saravanamuttu is – as you might expect – insisting he’s an impeccable anti-racist and seeking donations to pay his fine.
Shoukri and York University in general will have their work cut out. The situation is that York students who opposed the YFS leadership’s stance on their lecturer’s industrial action and who also are, or are associated with, students who opposed their YFS leadership’s stance on Israel, have been targeted as Jews, as supporters of the existence of a state for Jews and – as if one thing automatically followed from the other – as racists. Saravanamuttu’s comments amount to the sentiment that if Jews hadn’t been involved in the action then there wouldn’t have been an antisemitic response. In a climate like this the worry is that students who want to express themselves politically will be at a deficit if they are identified as Jews or with Jews. This smearing is type of identity politics often deployed by players who hope to create diversion and division.
This is another clear example where having “many Jews in our group” or even being Jewish, as was the other student who was reprimanded, is completely irrelevant. As Shalom Lappin a visiting professor at York University, an alumnus, pointed out:
“When I was an undergraduate at York in the late 1960s the University was home to lively political activity on a variety of issues. The Israeli-Palestininan conflict was one of these, and discussion was intense, occasionally heated. However, at no time did this discussion degenerate into systematic bullying, initimidation, or expressions of bigotry. Nor would the administration of that period have allowed it to do so. It is a source of great sadness to me that the current administration is either incapable or unwilling to insure the existence of a basic culture of decency, civility, and free speech on its campus.
This culture is a necessary feature of any serious institution of higher learning.”
In the absence of serious contemplation about why it is that the Israel/Palestine conflict, including its virulent racism, is being played out in a Canadian institution, fining the ringleaders will not get to the root of what is currently festering at York and what is threatening other campuses in other countries, including my own.