The Israel Advocacy Push to “Reclaim” York University
Putting Current Events in Context
Toronto’s York University, the third-largest university in Canada, is a politically contradictory place. On the one hand, what can in broad terms be described as left or progressive currents are prominent – in many cases, predominant – in its social science departments. The academy being the academy, critical intellectual inquiry does not always translate into practical political organization or engagement. But often it does, and at the very least contributes to an atmosphere in which it is possible for students and others at York to make significant contributions (organizational, financial or otherwise) to dissident political initiatives in the city or broader region. While the point should not be overstated, York has repeatedly played host over the decades to productive anti-war, anti-poverty and trade union initiatives.
On the other hand, York is a longstanding hub for “Israel advocacy” organizations (as they designate themselves). This reality expresses itself in various ways. At the grassroots level, far-right Zionist organizing has been common at York since at least the early 1980s, and seems to have even included direct recruitment for armed settler movements in the West Bank (and more commonly for the Israeli military itself). At the level of university fundraising, York has thoroughly integrated some of Canada’s leading Israel advocacy figures into its main administrative bodies. And at the level of university governance, York has earned a reputation for deep association with the Israeli state and for heavy-handed regulation of campus politics in favor of Israel advocates. York’s institutional association with Israel has been exceptional even by Canada’s dismal standards.
These tendencies sometimes exist in parallel and sometimes collide. Recurring collision is inevitable in the coming period. Maintaining an enduring awareness of the politics of Israel advocacy at York is necessary if progressive political currents are to defend themselves and, as basic principles require under present circumstances, to forthrightly address the question of Palestine in the face of unavoidable opposition from certain quarters.
By strategy and habit, Israel advocacy organizations seek to undermine progressive political initiatives regarding Israel/Palestine by relying on a twofold strategy of (1) direct, physical disruption of events and (2) institutional pressure to bring about disciplinary action against Palestine solidarity activists and organizations by the school’s administration. These two tracks increasingly form part of an integrated campaign of intimidation and repression.
There is presently an opportunity to drastically weaken the capacity of Israel advocacy organizations to regulate campus politics at York. An Israel advocacy backlash is inevitable, and its general contours can already be identified. Considering the historical backdrop of this backlash may be helpful in developing strategies to overcome it.
This article outlines the history of York University’s association with Israel and Israel advocacy, a record closely linked to the development of the broader politics of Israel advocacy in Canada. As the current furor over Israeli Apartheid Week amply demonstrates, the broadening of Palestine solidarity activities on Canadian campuses involves tense interaction with Israel advocacy organizations on a variety of fronts. Examination of the situation at York, historically the site of concentrated and extreme Israel advocacy organizing, may thus be relevant beyond York’s campus.
Learning to live with hysterical accusations of “anti-Semitism”
In light of the ongoing histrionics about a purported upsurge of anti-Semitism at York, a few basic issues merit attention at the outset.
There is arguably no scenario – and certainly no scenario in which a significant number of people recognize Palestinians as human beings with rights as such (and take this recognition to its practical political conclusion) – in which left or progressive political forces can operate in Canada in the coming years without encountering accusations of anti-Semitism. Below, this article explores what underlies the clamour about a supposed anti-Semitic upsurge at York which is almost entirely mythical; outlines the current Israel advocacy campaign to “reclaim” York and its reliance upon crass embellishment and fabrication; and sets these events against the historical backdrop of corporate Israel advocacy and grassroots Zionist militancy on York’s campus. But first, it is necessary to briefly contextualize the ongoing hysteria about alleged anti-Semitism at York and to emphasize that it is neither new nor likely to pass.
This is not the place for a detailed exploration of how fitting or meaningful are such terms as “left” or “progressive.” I will use the terms more or less interchangeably for purposes of this article, not so much because of their descriptive power as for lack of a better alternative. In clarifying what is meant, it may be simplest to focus on the area of recurring collision between “left”/“progressive” and “Israel advocacy” politics: issues of decolonization, war and occupation.
The point of tension is fairly straightforward. Setting aside its early history, the Israeli state (and by extension, its supporters) have for decades identified with the effective recolonization of the Middle East by a Western alliance led by the United States. This reality, in significant part enshrined in the Nixon doctrine, became even more dramatic with the deepening of U.S.-Israeli strategic ties under the Reagan administration, and persisted as the era of outright recolonization of the Middle East was initiated in earnest with the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 1990/1991 and the unprecedented expansion of the U.S. military presence in the region which accompanied it. Over the decades, many Western officials and Israel advocates have accordingly sought to extend the moral prestige Israel enjoyed in the West in the early phases of its colonial warfare against the Palestinians (as the embodiment of Jewish national liberation or what have you) to the recolonization drive as a whole. A necessary cornerstone of credible “left” or “progressive” politics – indeed, their defining characteristic, for purposes of this article: opposition to imperial war, support for genuine decolonization – thus became, in the rhetoric of Israel advocacy, the latest form of anti-Semitism.
Perhaps the best overview of the bankrupt ideas underpinning hysteria about this “New Anti-Semitism” is provided in part 1 of Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (2007). Its implications are routinely spelled out by Israel advocates.
Not long before he became the president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), in the summer of 1991, York University’s Irving Abella, for example, offered the Jerusalem Post the following explanation of the “new anti-Semitism” and its “sophisticated and suave” trappings. “It is not ‘politically correct’ to support Israel, or to fight the Black or Third World or Palestinian antisemites,” Abella complained. Abella, the Post reported, was concerned that Jews were also susceptible to this feverish Jewhatred: “many students will drop out of Jewish activities and join the more ‘politically correct’ campus communities – women’s, environmental and Third World groups, all of which have to one degree or another shown anti-Jewish bias – and be lost to the Jewish community.” During this period, York’s Jewish Student Federation (JSF) was anchoring the main on-campus defence of the U.S.-led, Canadian-backed campaign against Iraq, but perhaps the limited breadth of Jewish student support for the unfolding “Desert holocaust,” as William Blum has described it (“less a war,” Eqbal Ahmad observed, “than a technological massacre”) raised the spectre of self-hatred in the minds of some observers.
The pattern was repeated more recently when a renewed Western “war on terror” – marked by intensified Israeli attacks on Palestinians, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (with direct Canadian participation), and the invasion and occupation of Iraq – once again brought Israel advocates face-to-face with the scourge of some active opposition to neocolonial warfare, rooted in universalist principles. York University’s JSF, by this point renamed Hillel, anchored on-campus support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and for Israeli repression of the Palestinian uprising. When the York University administration called police on campus to arrest organizers of an anti-war student strike on March 5, 2003, Zac Kaye, executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto, publicly justified the move, contending that “police were needed to protect Jewish students” (a reference to pro-war Hillel organizers working through the local chapter of Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance). Lawrence Hart, community relations chair of the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC), soon after explained that Canadian Israel advocates should take the cue from their U.S. counterparts and identify “the forces of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and pacifism as major facilitators of today’s anti-Semitism.”
In Israel advocacy circles (and press releases), then, “anti-Semitism” has a specific technical meaning: opposition to Israeli state policies, to the policies with which Israel identifies, or to Israel advocacy campaigns on campus. The term “Jews,” too, is shifted to mean in effect “those who willingly identify with this strategy and the smears which accompany it.” Israel advocates at York have been clear on this point. “Many pro-Palestinian students at York are Jewish,” Zac Kaye is quoted as saying in the April 22, 2004 issue of the Canadian Jewish News. “They’re beyond the pale for us Jews and it can be quite frustrating.” The very next issue of this paper relays a message from the director of Hillel@York: “Jewish students are putting up a united and organized front in promoting Israel.” The category “us Jews,” then, has a narrow operative meaning, tailored primarily to bolster Israel advocacy smears against people of conscience.
Currently, a Hillel-anchored initiative at York to oust the executive of the undergraduate student union (the York Federation of Students, YFS) is meeting opposition from the current YFS and its allies (e.g., the York University Black Students’ Alliance, the York University Tamil Students’ Association, the Trans Bisexual Lesbian Gays Allies at York, Students Against Israeli Apartheid). In light of a YFS resolution condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza and the critical attention focusing on Hillel, an uproar about the latest upsurge of anti-Semitism at York was inevitable.
Carrying the banner of “human rights” to the End Days:
friendly visitors at York
On February 12, 2009, a demonstration at York condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza was confronted with a counter-demonstration anchored by Hillel and boasting the attendance of the preeminent leader of B’nai Brith Canada, Frank Dimant, a variety of his colleagues, and reportedly Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) CEO Bernie Farber as well. Having participated in a counter-demonstration which was oriented toward shouting down the original rally, the leadership of B’nai Brith and the CJC have now moved to lobbying the York administration to discipline organizers of the Palestine solidarity demonstration they sought to disrupt. A brief explanation of which political sectors these individuals represent is in order before proceeding to discuss the campaign for administrative repression they are now driving at York.
As for B’nai Brith Canada, it is tempting to dismiss Frank Dimant and his coterie as fringe ideologues. In one of the leading studies of contemporary Jewish communal and Israel advocacy politics in Canada, Daniel Elazar and Harold Waller explain that predominant Canadian Israel advocates try to keep B’nai Brith at arms length – but “B’nai Brith has an enormous capacity to cause trouble and embarrassment. Cooperating with its leaders avoids certain difficulties.” Indeed, B’nai Brith politics veer to the far right of the Canadian Israel advocacy spectrum. The organization’s association with West Bank settler movements has been the source of recurring controversy. Frank Dimant himself raised more than a few eyebrows when, in a joint appearance with the preeminent Canadian Christian Evangelist Charles McVety, he declared his eagerness to “stand together until Messiah comes” (one wonders whether these associates place bets on which of their respective messianic scenarios will be realized, and which of them will find themselves in a terribly awkward position when it does). But one can unfortunately not dismiss these politics as isolated or without influence. Oddly enough, even many reasonable people seem somehow capable of swallowing B’nai Brith Canada’s self-designation (repeated ad nauseam) as a “Jewish human rights organization.”
The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), in contrast, is part of the Canadian Israel advocacy mainstream, and weighs in on York campus politics as part of a broader, better-resourced, and in the final count much more influential political apparatus than B’nai Brith. The CJC, like the Canada-Israel Committee, is part of the advocacy system which operates under the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada (UIAFC) umbrella, connected on the one hand to the Israeli state by virtue of direct representation in the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization (groups with quasi-state status under Israeli law), and on the other to such leading U.S. Israel advocacy organizations as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. Hillel functions on campus as part of this system under the tutelage of the UIAFC department for National Jewish Campus Life (NJCL). Its activities are paralleled and complemented by the University Outreach Committee (UOC), “founded to advance outreach to University administrations, donors, and others outside the student realm.” UIAFC affiliates all function under the centralized direction of Canada’s principal Israel advocacy executive organization, the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA). For details on the development of this system, see this article.
For many days (as of the time this is being written), the main page of the CJC website has been dedicated to the situation at York, demanding “[a]ggressive action by the university” while emphasizing that “student codes of conduct provide ample opportunity for York to take the action necessary to reclaim its worthy institution from the hands of radicals.” The February 26, 2009 issue of the main UIAFC-linked publication, the Canadian Jewish News, ensures UIAFC constituents that student Israel advocates at York are being vigorously supported: “We’re supporting them financially … we’re supporting them when it comes to advice on student security, we’re supporting them when it comes to strategy and communications, on community mobilization, on government relations and through ongoing contact with York University administration,” spokesperson Howard English explains. English emphatically adds that York University must be pushed to “rid itself of damaging destructive elements in its midst.”
Student organizers have received phone calls from the police, whose increased involvement in campus affairs is being demanded at least by B’nai Brith. The Jerusalem Post reports that on February 24, B’nai Brith Canada wrote the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police regarding “the inadequate policing of university campuses, which have become breeding grounds for promoting hatred against Jewish students” (the terms “Jewish” and “students” are of course both used here with their operative Israel advocacy rather than common usage meaning). “We are witnessing clear and emerging patterns of support for radicalism, civil disobedience, and ultimately violence, on university campuses,” the Post quotes Frank Dimant as saying.
The Post story and these comments from B’nai Brith are actually not narrowly focused on York, but rather pertain to Canadian campuses in general, focusing in particular on the upcoming event series known as Israeli Apartheid Week (March 1-8). The pan-Canadian lobbying push for a crackdown is not confined to B’nai Brith; CIJA’s University Outreach Committee has established a task force under Irving Abella to develop recommendations for countering Israeli Apartheid Week. Meanwhile, at the University of Toronto and elsewhere, activists are facing a range of hostile administrative initiatives. In fact, given the current political landscape, the focus on York by the CJC and others seems to have more to do with the concentration of Israel advocacy enthusiasts and organizations at York (and their sense of entitlement at the institution) than with a unique threat posed by progressive movements here.
In any case, with a neoconservative regime in Canada’s federal government (under the Conservative Party produced by the merger between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives), the hysteria has received an official Canadian rubberstamp. This is in line with a longstanding Conservative push to win over Israel advocacy fundraisers and constituents from the Liberal Party by means of extreme Conservative support for Israel and its uncritical advocates. Minister of state for foreign affairs (Americas) Peter Kent has issued a statement in the House of Commons denouncing the “proliferation of hate, intimidation and harassment of Jewish students at York University.” Immigration minister Jason Kenney has also chipped in, using the supposed crisis at York as material in attacking the Ontario leadership of Canada’s largest public-sector union (the Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE) for “using totally irresponsible language [criticizing Israel] which is reinforcing a very dangerous opinion environment for many Jewish students on our campuses.” (The Liberal Party has duly responded by issuing a condemnation of its own.)
This public pressure and lobbying campaign seems to be having an effect. The York University administration is threatening to suspend Students Against Israeli Apartheid as a York campus club for 30 days and to impose a $1,250 fine in punishment for the demonstration of February 12. (Activists on other Canadian campuses are likewise seeing the call for an administrative crackdown materialize.) This article will conclude below with further information regarding the proceedings at York. But before doing so, it may be useful to spend some time setting the historical backdrop of York’s association with Israel and Israel advocacy politics, a backdrop against which ongoing events on campus are best discussed and interpreted.
University Diplomacy in the Broader Canadian Context:
Iron Fists and official visits
York University’s association with the Israeli state, in effective dismissal of the basic rights of its many (mostly Palestinian) victims, is longstanding. And it is by no means isolated. Rather, it forms part of the broader history of Canadian complicity with Israeli state crimes – a complicity which, in turn, is inseparable from Canada’s eager alignment with such leading aggressor states as Britain and the United States, from its commitment to the international system which they dominate, and from its callous disregard for those attacked by its chosen allies. Indeed, official Canadian rejection of basic Palestinian rights (for example, to political self-representation) is decades old.
This Canadian posture remains dramatic. In early 2006, for example, Canada became the first country in the world to join Israel in sanctioning the Palestinians for daring to elect a party which refuses to obey Western orders (in this case, Hamas). Back when Israel and Western powers were not satisfied with the willingness of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to accept their orders, the story was much the same. After the Reagan administration finally agreed to initiate low-level contacts with the PLO in December 1988, Abdullah Abdullah, then PLO representative in Ottawa, noted that “Canada is now the last country in the world outside of Israel that does not formally deal with the PLO,” outdoing even Reagan’s U.S. and Thatcher’s Britain in its intransigent rejection of Palestinian rights to political self-representation.
Still, even by Canadian standards, the administration of York University has historically maintained a particularly strong public association with the Israeli state. During the 1970s, York University president Ian MacDonald made numerous public appearances with visiting Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, and in 1977, York signed an exchange agreement with Jerusalem-based Hebrew University. The pattern of York’s association with Israeli state officials endured through the 1980s, despite the outrage Israel provoked with its massive invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its violent repression of the Palestinian uprising (intifada) which was launched five years later in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The York University administration’s effective support for Israeli repression of the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s is particularly illustrative. The brutality with which Israel sought to crush this popular challenge to Israeli military rule was difficult for even staunch supporters of Israel to ignore. Criticism began to be expressed even in mainstream Canada. In March 1988, to take perhaps the most prominent instance, Canadian foreign affairs minister Joe Clark – addressing the annual conference of the Canada-Israel Committee – combined the ritual official nod to “the generosity and idealism of the Zionist vision” with the following criticism:
“Human rights violations such as we have witnessed in the West Bank and Gaza, in these past agonizing weeks, are totally unacceptable, and in many cases are illegal under international law. The use of live ammunition to restore civilian order, the withholding of food supplies to control and collectively penalize civilian populations, the use of tear gas to intimidate families in their homes, of beatings to maim so as to neutralize youngsters and preempt further demonstrations, have all been witnessed these past months. UN officials, to say nothing of the media, report that these actions almost certainly are deliberate instruments of the so-called ‘iron-fist’ policy [ordered by then Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin], designed to reestablish control by force and by fear.”
These comments went some small way toward correcting Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s earlier assertion that Israeli forces were “showing restraint,” a statement which the PLO had denounced as “grossly biased” diplomacy which “will only encourage Israel to murder more Palestinians.” However, the Mulroney government by no means meant to reverse such encouragement altogether, and the next year, Israeli president Chaim Herzog was invited to address Canadian parliament.
Former Liberal MP Ian Watson (in contrast to the Liberal leadership at the time, which had attacked Clark for his supposed anti-Israel excesses) rightly denounced the move as a contribution to “giv[ing] Israel a green light to continue killing Palestinian children and to brutally suppress the intifada.” For many, the invitation of Herzog, Israeli head of state and a former military commander of the West Bank, was indeed an outrage.
York University’s administration, in contrast, invited the veteran occupation forces commander to campus, where amidst much proud publicity, senior York administrators presented Herzog with an honorary degree. York president Harry Arthurs praised Herzog as a “distinguished scholar, lawyer, soldier, and statesmen,” and conferred upon the Israeli president an honorary Doctorate of Laws.
Probable paramilitary recruitment in
an atmosphere of sanctioned militarism
The 1994 massacre of Palestinians in Hebron by the Zionist settler Baruch Goldstein – who entered the Ibrahimi mosque at prayer time in Israeli army uniform before opening fire with his army-issued automatic weapon, killing 29 and wounding another 150 – was a troubling sign of things to come under a “peace process” in which illegal settlements retained independent paramilitary organization, effectively protected by occupation forces with which they are in the final count heavily linked. Goldstein having come to the West Bank from Brooklyn, it was also a reminder of the long history, older than the Israeli state, of attacks on Palestinians by North American settlers.
Writing for the Toronto Star about the aftermath of the killings, reporter Bob Hepburn took the story of former York University student Chaim Goldsweig as his point of departure. The article ran under the title, “How one Metro man became hardline Israeli” (March 1, 1994). In reference to the then-outlawed Israeli political party with which Goldstein was affiliated, founded by the infamous racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, Hepburn explained that Goldsweig is an enthusiast of “the radical anti-Arab Kach movement.” Goldsweig had lived in North York and attended York University before moving to Israel/Palestine in 1988, where, although he “appears a far cry from the image of a Kach supporter,” he was enamored with the armed settler movement; Goldsweig, Hepburn wrote, is “a true Kach backer.”
The trajectory of York student to Kach enthusiast is not so counterintuitive or isolated as one may think. In fact, through the 1980s, the politics of Kahane’s Kach party and of the North American organization which Kahane established, the Jewish Defense League (JDL), thrived at York.
In 1981, Kahane himself visited York to give a lecture. What is remarkable is not merely that he was invited to campus, but that his visit was the subject of a prominent and uncritical report by the principal campus newspaper, Excalibur. “JDL leader at York, Kahane solve conflict,” the front-page headline read, barely concealing support for his on-campus proselytization drive. The JDL was quite active at York during this period, physically disrupting Palestine solidarity events and seeking to build its base.
In late 1984, the JDL chapter at York, in conjunction with the York Jewish Student Federation as a whole, again invited Kahane to York in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to challenge the Canadian government’s decision to bar the racist militia-raiser from the country. Covering the JSF invitation, the Globe and Mail reported:
“Rabbi Kahane advocates the forced resettlement in Arab countries of all Arabs now living in Israel and supports anti-Arab violence. ‘No one said it was nice, but sometimes it’s necessary,’ he said yesterday. ‘There is a place for love and a place for hate. You have to know where.’ After the rocket attack on the Arab bus that killed one person and injured 10, the Kach Movement issued a statement referring to the attackers as ‘those brave Jews,’ and warning Arabs in Israel that if they ‘want to ride safely on buses, Kach suggests they ride buses on a one-way trip out of Israel.’”
It is unfair to wholly conflate this pro-paramilitarist tendency at York with administrative gestures of association with the Israeli state. Still, in an atmosphere of tolerated militarism, such tendencies thrive. And the York administration did indeed contribute to such an atmosphere. To stick with the example of the conferral upon Herzog of an honorary degree, when a JSF representative addressing the convocation bragged of having himself served in the Israeli military, it should be recalled and emphasized that he did so as a scheduled participant within an event boasting the prominent participation of the university president (Harry Arthurs).
Later that year, Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose orders to break the bones of Palestinian demonstrators would still have been fresh in the minds of anyone aware of the unfolding events (alongside the images of how this was translated into practice under his command), likewise came to York for an invitation-only campus event (November 1989). “Not often do the Metro police of 31 division and the Israeli secret service get together on York campus,” the Excalibur reported – but, on the other hand, not so rarely as one might expect.
Links among Israeli state officials, hardline Israel advocacy and the York University campus are indeed quite longstanding. Rather than fading in the 1990s, these associations gained increased institutional traction, as private fundraising rose to the very top of the York administration’s list of priorities, and as certain Israel advocacy organizations and leaders established themselves as an important fundraising constituency.
From Arthurs to Marsden (and, yes, Shoukri):
continuity through and beyond the 1990s
The initiation of the Oslo process in 1993 partially freed Israel – although quite incorrectly – of political stigma as an occupying power, a development which combined with the broadening of neoliberal trade arrangements (centred, both for Canada and for Israel, on the U.S.) to tighten Canadian-Israeli relations. While Canada had rebuffed Israeli proposals for a Canada-Israel science and technology fund through the 1980s, for example, a pact approximating these proposals materialized in 1994 in the form of the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Fund (CIIRF). A Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA) followed. This trend impacted the academic sector as well.
Across Canada, including at York, relations with Israeli institutions were updated and expanded. In 1994, for instance, eighteen Canadian university presidents including then York president Susan Mann visited Israel on an official visit organized by the CJC, where they met with Israeli state officials (e.g., the foreign affairs minister and the education minister), visited the occupied Golan Heights, made further contacts with Israeli universities, and made nominal gestures at increased interaction with Palestinian educational institutions (these appear to have not materialized, though I would be happy to be corrected). As part of the trip, the York Centre for Jewish Studies co-hosted a reception along with the arch-conservative Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “This trip allowed us to renew the University’s current agreements with the Hebrew University and the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, and to develop stronger ties between York and Israeli institutions,” York president Mann explained.
The orientation of the York University administration toward Israel advocates took on a new dimension after the Mike Harris Tories, elected to Ontario’s provincial government in 1995, slashed funding for postsecondary education as part of their broader structural adjustment-style policy program. Ontario schools were pushed further into the arms of the private sector, and York was certainly no exception.
York’s persistent calls for private donations met with a substantial response from certain Israel advocacy sectors. The main York fundraising drive at the time was the “National Campaign,” launched in 1996. A 1998 article in the York alumni magazine titled “York’s Strengths Attract Big Gifts” showcased the campaign’s success. The largest contribution provided as an example was a $2-million contribution from the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, heralded as “one of the largest benefactions in York’s history.” It should be stressed that the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University is a profoundly political grouping, and was in fact one of the co-sponsors of Israeli prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu’s botched 2002 visit to Montreal.
The growing integration of Israel advocates into York fundraising became dramatically evident when the administration’s fundraising apparatus was overhauled and restructured around a newly formed York University Foundation in 2002. Israel advocates are well represented on this body. The Foundation was founded under the presidency of Paul Marcus, former director of the B’nai Brith Institute for International Affairs; Marcus remains president and CEO of the Foundation. Numerous prominent Israel advocates, including Howard Sokolowski and Julia Koschitzky, sit on the institution’s board of directors. Sokolowski, as the Foundation website explains,
“served as Co-Campaign Chair 2003 for the United Jewish Appeal [a core constituent group of the UIAFC], and raised an unprecedented $65,000,000 for the Israel Emergency Fund.” (Rabbi Michael Lerner’s understated comments during the Israeli assault on Gaza and Lebanon in the summer of 2006 – “Donations to the federation at this point are simply a ‘yes’ vote to continued Israeli militarism” – applied with equal force in the aftermath of 2002’s so-called “Operation Defensive Shield”; if donations constitute a vote for militarism, chairing of the federation campaign is another matter still.) Koschitzky, for her part, is an executive member of the Jewish Agency for Israel (an institution with quasi-state standing in Israeli law) and a founding member of CIJA.
Needless to say, then, the York administration’s association with Israel endured past the ’90s. York president Lorna Marsden, in addition to making numerous official visits to Israel, was forthcoming with continued displays of diplomatic support for the Israeli government. In 2003, for example, Natan Sharansky, an acting minister in Ariel Sharon’s Likud government, visited York’s campus to give a talk. President Marsden participated in the event, introducing the acting Likud minister as “a symbol for the struggle of human rights wherever people are oppressed.”
At the same time, the Marsden administration engaged in heavy-handed action against anti-war and Palestine solidarity social movements, sometimes setting the stage for direct use of force by police working in cooperation with administration personnel. These actions were sufficiently dramatic to warrant the initiation by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) of a committee of inquiry to investigate issues of free speech and university governance at York (the committee’s report is presently available online).
In light of the current framing of moves toward administration disciplinary action on campus, it may be useful to emphasize that this has had nothing to do with disruption of classes. To take a personal anecdote, in October of 2004, I was one of a number of students to receive a disciplinary letter from the administration based on participation in a quite uneventful vigil on campus which had been held outdoors – outside in front of Vari Hall Rotunda, for those who know the campus (the event focused on Israeli attacks on Gaza).
Administration regulation of such campus events has been plainly political.
The Shoukri administration and the current outcry about “anti-Semitism”: crying wolf in search of a pretext
In the summer of 2007, Mamdouh Shoukri became the new president of York University, replacing Lorna Marsden. In various respects, the beginning of Shoukri’s presidency raised positive expectations. As far as the politics of Israel/Palestine are concerned, some of these expectations were rooted in the same misconception that has produced the silly response to Palestine solidarity activism known as Jewish-Muslim dialogue: namely, the idea that positions on Israel/Palestine are determined by ethnic or religious identity, and not by independent thought or institutional pressure. Still, the Marsden administration having set the bar low, there was and remains some grounds to hope for modest improvements under Shoukri. As for the use of campus space by student social movements, regulations have to some extent been relaxed. That having been said, even in this limited sense, it is imperative to highlight the continuity from the situation which prevailed under Marsden.
In practical terms, the Shoukri administration’s decision to relax restrictions on student organization and assembly didn’t change very much. Since early 2005, administrative prohibition of political displays and demonstrations in various areas of York (e.g., Vari) had remained on the books, but had been practically null and void. This resulted from the debacle of January 20, 2005. This date marked the second inauguration of U.S. president George W. Bush, and was the occasion for an anti-occupation demonstration on campus. After the anti-war upsurge of spring 2003, the York administration had prohibited tabling or demonstrations in various campus spaces, including the Vari Link and Vari Hall. The 2005 demonstration properly ignored these prohibitions. In response, the York administration called police on campus who publicly beat down demonstrators in the main public space on campus and made several arrests.
The reaction of the campus community to the events of January 2005 was to effectively nullify the authority of the administration in regulating campus politics and social movements. Numerous demonstrations involving several hundred and in some cases more than a thousand people were held in off-limits space, and administration efforts to set prohibitive terms for campus political assemblies were stripped of any legitimacy. The space to table with political literature or to hold demonstrations was effectively and stably carved out, and this space was made use of as the energies and opinions of campus associations (rather than the whims of administrators) dictated. The Marsden administration maintained a disconnect between regulations and this reality; the Shoukri administration sensibly abandoned it in favour of somewhat more realistic and relaxed regulations for tabling and demonstrating.
Administration spokespeople have in recent weeks been making statements to the effect that they are considering reconstituting prohibitions on the use of key campus areas for purposes of distributing political literature or holding demonstrations. This mistakes cause for effect: these spaces are used because administrative prohibitions on social movements are neither accepted by campus associations in principle nor viable in
practice. It is imperative that this remain the case. If emerging campus movements in the coming years (dealing with issues of war, occupation, racism, tuition, or whatever) are forced to direct their energies toward navigating bureaucratic obstacles, they will run the risk of being drained of important energies that are better directed elsewhere. To avert such a scenario, it needs to be made abundantly clear that administrative threats are ineffective and that regulations should work with and reflect the campus environment rather than seek to overhaul (and thus politically clash with) it.
The current clamour about “anti-Semitism” at York is, in my estimation, primarily an attempt to conflate dissident social movements with anti-Semitic politics so that a repressive clamp-down can be spun in politically palatable terms on York’s campus and in the broader press. While this political tactic is being employed on other campuses, I will stick to York. As tedious as it is, specific consideration of the allegations of anti-Semitism at York and of their wild, widespread embellishment may be useful.
Another Year for the New Anti-Semitism at York: “this unconfirmed story”
The current effort to conflate Palestine solidarity politics at York
with anti-Semitism centres on two events: an ad hoc rally on February 11, and a demonstration against Israeli attacks on Gaza on February 12. I was present at the February 12 demonstration, and am not aware of any half-credible allegation of anti-Semitism relating to it. Presumably, since the February 11 rally would only warrant the singular, Isi Leiber’s reference in the Jerusalem Post to “violent anti-Jewish riots at York University in Toronto, Canada” was made in vague reference to the February 12 demonstration as well, but since he doesn’t bother with specifics, his bizarre imaginings merit little attention. The Canadian Jewish News, harshly covering the February 12 demonstration in a story titled “Jewish students under ‘siege’ at York U,” made no specific accusations of anti-Semitism pertaining to this rally, though its editorial board certainly denounced the “ugly anti-Israel scene at Vari Hall.” We may therefore turn to the main supposed flashpoint for York’s anti-Semitic upsurge: the rally of February 11. As I was not present, I will rely on the available reports of the event.
This rally is embedded in campus politics which require a cursory overview. From November 6, 2008 to January 29, 2009, York’s graduate assistants, teaching assistants and contract faculty, represented by CUPE local 3903, were on strike, shutting York’s campus down. The undergraduate student union, YFS, was broadly sympathetic with the union and critical of the administration for its negotiating position and public relations strategy. Another important point: On January 21, 2009, the YFS passed a resolution condemning Israeli attacks on educational institutions in Gaza and affiliating YFS with the Right to Education campaign.
During the course of the strike, a group of undergraduate students critical of the YFS for its perceived association with CUPE 3903 had organized themselves as “York Not Hostage” (more of a facebook and media than broad organizational initiative, it seems). As students returned after the strike, York Not Hostage merged into a “Drop YFS” campaign anchored by the leadership of Hillel and a closely allied but subsidiary Israel advocacy group, Hasbara Fellowships. Drop YFS launched a petition drive to impeach the YFS executive. The rally of February 11, so broadly cited since, emerged in opposition to a Drop YFS campaign press conference in the York Student Centre. When members of the YFS and supportive students were barred from the press conference (whether by political decision or as a result of limited room capacity, various parties disagree), an ad hoc demonstration emerged which disrupted the event. This rally, again, is taken to have been the major display of the purported anti-Semitic upsurge at York, so it is worth reviewing the available facts. In examining the fall-out, I will not give attention to accusations that Israel advocates made racist comments, but will confine myself to the allegations of anti-Semitism.
To the best of my knowledge and understanding, there are four individuals who were actually present on February 11 who soon after published reports of what took place. Ali Mustafa wrote a brief, supportive account of the ad hoc rally for an alternative left newspaper on campus, the YU Free Press. Jonathan Blake Karoly wrote by far the most critical report of the rally, a student account which was published online by Jonathan Kay through the National Post. The main campus paper at York, Excalibur, had gone to print the night before, but an Excalibur representative was present, and a report of the event ran in the subsequent week’s issue. Blake Karoly reports that a representative from the Globe and Mail was also present, presumably either Elizabeth Church or Omar El Akkad, who co-authored the report for the Globe.
No specific allegations of anti-Semitism appear in the YU Free Press report (Feb. 12), the Globe and Mail report (Feb. 13), or the Excalibur report (Feb. 18). Chants including “Shame on Hillel,” “Zionism is racism,” and “Racists off campus” are reported. (Not messaging everyone can get behind, but hardly anti-Semitic.) No quotes from Hillel spokespeople are relayed in any of these stories alleging specifically anti-Semitic statements. The most substantive implication of anti-Semitism is made by Jonathan Blake Karoly himself. He writes: “…one pro-Palestinian student stood at the glass door of the Hillel, visible to the students in the Hillel, with his Kaffeiyah scarf pulled all the way up to his eyes. This is a tactic used by terrorist organizations such as Hamas and al-Qaeda to intimidate others, and quite frankly I was completely taken off-guard by the sight of this student and at that point fear began to trickle into me as well. This is something that goes beyond free speech and being anti-Israel and is tantamount to racism and discrimination.”
But soon, Israel advocates began giving statements to reporters – published only in the reports of journalists who were not present at the event – alleging actual anti-Semitism.
This began modestly. A National Post reporter who was not present on February 11, James Cowan, came to the demonstration on February 12 and solicited quotes. His report, published on February 13, quotes Hillel@York president Daniel Ferman asserting that not only did demonstrators chant “Shame on Hillel” and “Zionism is racism,” but that “he was also referred to as a ‘dirty Jew’ and ‘f–-ing Jew’ by members of the throng.” Shame on Hillel – fine. Zionism is racism – in its current operative sense, it effectively is, but yes, one can play the Magnes card and quibble; still, an admissible position for engagement and discussion. Using “Jew” as a term of derision, in contrast, would of course be anti-Semitic, a comment which it would be necessary to sharply distinguish from such slogans as “Zionism is racism” (even if one dislikes the formulation) for specific denunciation. But was this actually said? It is difficult to verify. No reporters who were present at the event seem to have heard it. Indeed, among all the stories written on these “tensions” at York in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Excalibur, none have mentioned the allegation. In any case, the snowball kept rolling from there.
Later on February 13 came a story from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), followed, on February 15, by the Jerusalem Post. Both add a new pair of alleged (and unattributed) quotes: “Die bitch, go back to Israel”; “Die Jew, get the hell off campus.” (The first two online comments under the JTA story read: “Where is the JDL when you really need them?” / “At some point, the Jewish students should learn to crack a few heads, as needed.”) Frankly, these allegations are extremely suspect. Both statements would be construed, and certainly publicized, as death threats. And yet they were apparently neither reported to the police who came on campus on February 11, credibly mentioned to any reporter from Excalibur, the Toronto Star or the Globe (none have mentioned any allegation of the kind), written up in an Excalibur opinions piece, nor accompanied by any effort to determine who said these things or to whom the threatening comments were directed.
Since, the fabrications have steadily become more shameless and outlandish.
Frank Dimant, explaining to an Ottawa Citizen reporter why it was necessary to ban the poster for Israeli Apartheid Week at two universities in the city, cited the events of February 11:
“’This [IAW] is part of an ongoing, well-orchestrated campaign of intimidation and harassment and now, at times, even resulting in physical attacks.’
Two weeks ago, he said, Jewish students at York University were ‘held captive’ in a room surrounded by Israeli Apartheid Week supporters.
‘People were banging on walls and screaming things like “death to the Jews,”’ Dimant said.”
And so it became public record. In a February 27 article for the Calgary Herald titled “Anti-Israel protests show ignorance,” Naomi Lakritz counterposes Palestine solidarity activists’ ignorance with her journalistic reliability: “maybe genocide is really what the IAW supporters want to see. After all, just two weeks ago, IAW activists surrounded a Hillel office at York University where Jewish students had taken refuge from them, and pounded on the walls yelling ‘Death to the Jews,’ and ‘Die, Jew! Get the hell off campus.’”
In an article calling for pressure to ensure that “York is purged of its hateful elements,” the National Post‘s Matt Gurney provides some commentary that is worth quoting at length. Describing an alleged anti-Semitic assault, he writes: “a Jewish student was physically assaulted on campus after confronting a group protesting Israeli policies.” He continues: “I haven’t been able to verify that it happened at all; everyone I spoke to said that they’d heard about it, but had nothing to offer beyond hearsay and rumour. Nevertheless, the reports of a student being assaulted, even if it was only a minor scuffle, has the Jewish community at York rattled, and rightly so. Such an assault would cross a line which has been very much thinned by the recent protests, but which has remained a line nonetheless. If it has been crossed, then it’s a whole new ball game, and it speaks to how poisonous the York campus has become for Jews that they are so readily willing to accept this unconfirmed story.”
And to the integrity of the likes of Gurney that he is so eager to circulate it.
Responding to the Shoukri Administration’s Moves Towards a Crackdown
The threat to suspend Students Against Israeli Apartheid as a campus club and to impose a $1,250 fine on the organization is a tactical move which can be made to politically fail. It is imperative that the administration maintain its understanding that such moves toward crackdown effectively escalate rather than diminish campus political activity. The pattern whereby such administrative moves spur people who would not usually be involved in tabling and other campus activities to demonstratively participate (and vocally express support) is well worth maintaining in order to overcome the effects of such moves and ultimately to deter them.
As for the allegations of anti-Semitism, they are inevitable, but can be taken in stride. Vigorous opposition to actual anti-Semitism is, indeed, a necessary component of progressive and anti-racist politics. To maintain its honesty and its progressive character, such opposition must be embraced as fully compatible both with vigorous criticism of Israeli policies and with an open, unapologetic challenge to the Israel advocacy push toward defamation and administrative clampdown. Genuine understanding of anti-Semitism requires as a basic point of departure the recognition that this is not what we are seeing at York.
The current Israel advocacy strategy at York involves staging counter-demonstrations against Palestine solidarity rallies in order to make them as noisy and unpleasant as possible in the hope that, first, participants are intimidated, potential participants dissuaded from getting involved, and observers convinced that two-sided yelling should instead give way to a dialogue based on shared willingness to do nothing substantive to act against Israeli atrocities against Palestinians (and Israel advocacy proposals to this end abound); and, second, a sufficiently disruptive scene can be produced to make potential disciplinary action by the administration seem reasonable. Meanwhile, if fines are imposed and disciplinary action is undertaken against groups responsible for Israel advocacy counter-demonstrations as well as for the original rally (as is the case now: Hasbara Fellowships and, to a lesser extent, Hillel, are also being disciplined for the demonstration of February 12) this pays off from an Israel advocacy standpoint. The last Hillel of Greater Toronto annual report to which I have access (2007) cites total revenues of more than $1.7-million. The maximum fine, with which SAIA is being threatened, means little within such a budget, and even subsidiary Israel advocacy groupings have incomparable access to funds when compared to Palestine solidarity formations. Moreover, the situation in Canada is one of overwhelming alignment with Israel against Palestinians on the part of the country’s political and economic establishment. Campuses offer important space for building a challenge to such policies. For intelligent Israel advocates, shutting down and pacifying campuses as a space for grassroots political organizing and demonstrations is beneficial even if grassroots Israel advocacy is impeded in the process – pushing for greater support at the level of government policy or for greater York-Israel ties is in any case better left to the likes of the Canada-Israel Committee, the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC, for which students are regularly recruited from campus) or the University Outreach Committee. The appearance of disciplinary symmetry thus masks administrative moves which are entirely congruent with predominant Israel advocacy politics while fundamentally undercutting any dissident initiatives.[*] (The Tamil Students’ Association is likewise being suspended and fined.)
The process of moving beyond, bypassing and eventually disempowering the politics of Israel advocacy at York cannot avoid episodes of defamation or moves toward administrative repression. But given the history on campus, there is every reason to anticipate these, and no reason to be overly fazed by them. Especially after the latest Gaza massacres, the argument that progressive politics are compatible with indifference to Palestinian rights must be put behind us, and a broadened base pushing for meaningful censure of Israel developed. In light of the politics of Israel advocacy at York, these are issues which cannot be brushed aside. Both principled politics and institutional self-interest demand that progressive elements at York not permit an Israel advocacy backlash to shut down or narrow spaces for independent political organization and action.
Meanwhile, the circulated demand to president Shoukri remains minimalist and valid. Shoukri has stood by the position issued by his predecessor in the final days of her presidency: to politically attack the British Association of University Teachers for its proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions. If, indeed, the political mandate of the York presidency is this broad, then surely it may extend as well to public criticism of the Israeli decision to not merely boycott but indeed to bomb Palestinian educational institutions (as condemned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and others). If Shoukri fails to issue such a statement, having already stood by the skewed pronouncement of his predecessor, he can rightly be accused of upholding the York administration’s longstanding pro-Israel partisanship.
Under these cirumstances, it may be hoped that the broader campus
community will not share the Shoukri administration’s willingness to perpetuate York’s shameful record on this issue, and that the terms of debate may be shifted in a more constructive direction. •
David Strassler, “Double jeopardy on campus,” July 30 1991, Jerusalem Post.
Anna Morgan, “York panel on Mideast and free speech called biased,” April 10 2003, Canadian Jewish News.
Lawrence Hart, “The global epidemic of Jew hatred,” November 27 2003, Canadian Jewish News.
Natalie Ruskin, “Toronto Hillel optimistic despite challenges,” April 22 2004, Canadian Jewish News.
“York students united in fighting problems: Hillel,” April 29 2004, Canadian Jewish News.
Daniel Elazar and Harold Waller, Maintaining Consensus: The
Canadian Jewish Polity in the Postwar World. New York: University Press of America, 1990. (p. 116)
Writing in 1990 on the dismal state of organized Jewish community politics in Canada, former New Democratic Party (NDP) national secretary Gerald Caplan wrote:
“Never mind the routine beatings, torture, killings and harassment of Palestinians by Jews. Take the recent move of 150 Israeli fundamentalists, surreptitiously subsidized by the Shamir government, into the old Christian quarter of Jerusalem.
… The Canadian Jewish Congress issues a statement reaffirming its belief that Jews have a right to live in any part of Israel. The Canada-Israel Committee affirms this same right but with the mealy-mouthed qualification that ‘the manner in which recent events have unfolded is disquieting.’ And worst of all: The Canadian B’nai Brith. A B’nai Brith delegation of 20 Jewish leaders from across Canada, in Israel when the Jerusalem issue explodes, are ready, aye ready, to perform as mindless cheerleaders.
‘We support,’ a spokeperson says, ‘what the duly elected government of Israel does’ – a peculiarly witless and uniformed principle. And to demonstrate the boundless nature of their irresponsibility, the delegation then pays homage to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank that had been founded by Rabbi Moshe Levinger. Levinger, a fanatical leader of Israel’s Jewish settler movement and a bigot who calls Arabs ‘dogs,’ was just convicted of killing an unarmed, unthreatening Palestinian shopkeeper.” (May 13 1990, Toronto Star)
More recently, Shira Herzog, formerly a key leader of the Canada-Israel Committee and now a columnist for the Globe and Mail, denounced B’nai Brith Canada from the pages of the Globe for bringing the support of its weekly newspaper, the Jewish Tribune, behind the extreme demands of ‘Greater Israel’ settlers against the Sharon government. (March 2 2005)
Tim Harper, “Canada not following Reagan’s lead to closer ties with PLO, Clark says,” December 17 1988, The Toronto Star.
Joe Clark, March 1988. Full text available as appendix to Ronnie Miller, From Lebanon to the Intifada: The Jewish Lobby and Canadian Middle East Policy. New York: University Press of America, 1991. (cited passages from pp. 99-100)
Christopher Waddell (Canadian Press), “PM sees no conflict in Gaza comments, PLO office condemns view that Israel is not violating human rights,” December 23 1987, Globe and Mail.
Gordon Barthos, “President’s visit starts at Ontario cottage,” June 21 1989, The Toronto Star.
Stephen Wise, “Chaim Herzog,” July 20 1989, Excalibur.
“JDL leader at York, Kahane solve conflict,” November 5 1981, Excalibur.
Stephen Brunt, “Militant rabbi makes new bid for entry visa,” November 3 1984, The Globe and Mail.
Jacob Katsman, “Israeli defence minister at York,” November 16 1989, Excalibur.
16. John Kirton and Peyton Lyon, “Perceptions of the Middle East in
the Department of External Affairs and Mulroney’s Policy, 1984-1988,” in David Goldberg and David Taras (eds), The Domestic Battleground:
Canada and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989. (p. 198)
“Canadian university presidents travel to Israel,” York University Profiles Magazine (September 1994).
“York’s strengths attract big gifts,” York University Profiles Magazine (May 1998).
Angie Oliveira, “Dear Lorna…,” October 1 2003, Excalibur.
20. Don Butler, “Universitites face fights over posters; Students angry as Carleton, U of O ban anti-Israel art,” February 25 2009, Ottawa Citizen.
21. Naomi Lakritz, “Anti-Israel protests show ignorance,” February 27 2009, Calgary Herald.
* My lines of communication with Israel advocacy groups on campus are not entirely solid. As a result, the original version of this article contained an error regarding the distribution of administrative disciplinary action, correction of which had to await these proceedings become a matter of public record.