In the summer of 2009, an academic conference co-sponsored by York University and Queen’s University proceeded without incident at the Glendon College Campus in Toronto, Ontario. Leading up to the event, however, York officials anticipated demonstrations and campaigns aimed at halting graduate contributions to the university.
One expects academic events to be intellectually stimulating, but rarely is a gathering of scholars in Canada cause for investigation by high-ranking government officials. In this case, the conference touched upon the new third rail of political and academic conversation in the country.
Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace was the theme of one conference sponsored as part of York University’s fiftieth anniversary celebration (U50). What the conference proposed to accomplish was a critical reading of Israel’s history, with the aim of working towards viable political resolutions to more than fifty years of occupation and war. Very quickly, the conference became an international target of lobby groups that aimed to have the event stopped.
The Conservative government’s decision to intervene and put pressure on the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to review its funding of the conference set a dangerous precedent. This controversy is the topic of No Debate: The Israel Lobby and Free Speech at Canadian Universities, by Jon Thompson, a retired professor at the University of New Brunswick.
No Debate provides an exceptional account of how the Israel lobby and its supporters in the government attempted to silence free speech. As Thompson’s book reveals, this was an unprecedented assault on academic freedom and the first incident of political intervention into the academic funding agency since its establishment in 1978. No Debate is based on a report of an investigation commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers that looked into attempts by the government to withdraw SSHRC’s financial support for the conference.
Within weeks of York announcing its U50 schedule, Zionist organizations like B’Nai Brith, the Jewish Defense League, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Canadian Jewish Congress pushed to have York withdraw its sponsorship. The conference was denounced in the press through op-ed pieces and full-page advertisements in leading Canadian papers. Senior York administrators, including President Mamdouh Shoukri, received a deluge of emails and phone calls. Through public records and freedom of information requests, Thompson catalogues the sea of correspondence between York officials, scholars and lobby groups that played a role in this sad affair.
As early as 4 October, 2008, the Jewish Defense League threatened to bring pressure on York to cancel the conference. The JDL also appealed to the federal government by making an argument that the conference presented ideas that were “contrary to official government policy” in Canada.
Despite groundless accusations against the conference organizers and keynote speakers, several York administrators met representatives from Israel lobby groups. What came from these meetings, Thompson shows, was particularly shameful. David DeWitt, then an associate vice-president at the university, suggested that the conference organizers swap the majority of the confirmed speakers for other, “worthy” contributors recommended by the very groups who sought to stop the event altogether.
DeWitt went so far as to say that the speakers were “tarnished by ideology and polemic.” That was an interesting charge, considering that DeWitt considered himself an “academic colleague” of Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, an individual who set out to publicly smear the names of conference speakers and organizers.
Spokespeople for the Israel lobby groups, and even scholars at York, accused conference speakers, such as The Electronic Intifada’s co-founder Ali Abunimah, of not possessing adequate credentials to participate in an academic debate. Even Jewish Israelis, like David Kretzmer of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who is a well-known human rights advocate and legal scholar, were targeted as being ideologically biased.
Ironically, this same chorus of opponents called for invitations to be extended to the likes of Liberal member of Parliament Bob Rae and former Liberal government minister Irvin Cotler to speak instead — neither of whom, to be sure, could be considered academic experts in this particular field, nor could they be expected to provide a sober and unbiased account of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Not a Jewish lobby
What No Debate offers is a comprehensive and historically grounded examination of academic freedom in theory and in practice. Thompson’s book also charts the rise of the Israel lobby and the threat this coalition poses to open discussion and academic freedom in the United States and, increasingly, Canada.
The author is clear that this is not a Jewish lobby, but a coterie of religious and secular groups that seek to undermine and silence any debate about Israel’s colonial history. Working in concert with a Conservative government that has, according to Thompson, been “eroding Canadian democracy in a variety of ways since 2006,” the Israel lobby is particularly dangerous to the fabric of free, scholarly inquiry and public debate.
In the case of the conference jointly sponsored by York and Queen’s, however, the lobby was not successful in its goals. In fact, the Canadian government’s attempt to force SSHRC’s hand was met with stiff, nation-wide resistance. Thompson concludes that the agency did not bend to the government’s wishes and its call for a second peer review.
No Debate is an important book for many reasons. For activists and scholars that stand in solidarity with Palestinian human rights to those who believe that academic freedoms everywhere need to be defended and expanded, Thompson’s book provides a politically potent and engaging read.
Andrew Stevens is co-host of Rank and File Radio, a weekly program about labor and unions in Canada that airs on CFRC 101.9FM. Andrew interviewed No Debate author Jon Thompson about the book in February. Archives of the program can be found at www.cfrc.ca and www.radio4all.net.