Should a university silence voices calling for peace and justice?

In April 2003, the School of Social Work at the University of Victoria in British Columbia posted the following Statement on Peace and Justice on its website:

“The School of Social Work is committed to principles and ideals that support and cultivate social justice, and as such we are compelled morally, politically and socially to speak up and against the war on Iraq. We stand in solidarity with the millions of voices globally calling for an end to the US and British invasion on Iraq. We call for the immediate end of this violent and illegal aggression in the name of a ‘pre-emptive war’, which is threatening global and international peace and security. We fundamentally believe that military action cannot be the answer to global crises and firmly denounce the US and British rhetoric that this war is about liberating the Iraqi people. Military action always and automatically increases and puts at risk all human rights and none more fundamentally as the right to life. We firmly believe that human rights can only be sustained and realized through just and peaceful means and as such we urge the United Nations and all peoples and governments to speak up and out against the present invasion of Iraq.

“We denounce the occupations of people by imperialist states wherever they exist — in Palestine, Iraq or Aboriginal Nations of Canada. We also denounce the illegal and unjust military aggressions against the Palestinian people and the settlements and continued occupation of their territory, in defiance of United Nations resolutions by the state of Israel, with the complicit support of the US. We are appalled by the continued and ongoing slaughter of Iraqi and Palestinian people and call for an immediate cessation of all military aggression and state repression waged against Iraqi and Palestinian civilians.

“We stand in solidarity with the many peace and anti-racist activists at home and abroad calling for an end to the increased racial profiling and human rights violations against Arab, Muslim, Palestinian and South Asian peoples. We deplore and stand against all forms of hatred that arise out of conditions of war, oppression, repression and genocide at home and abroad. We call for and stand for a world and everyday relationships that are invested in cultivating solidarity amongst each other, encouraging diverse and dynamic ways of knowing and living, fostering of individual and collective involvement, and respecting the rights of individuals, peoples, and nations to self-determine their lives and futures.”

Two months later, on Friday 18 July, the School of Social Work removed this Statement from its website. The department and university had received numerous complaints from the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island. Harry Abrams and Bob Goldschmid, members of the Federation, claimed that “this is an inappropriate place to make this kind of value judgment or political statement… They have just taken one side;” and “it’s possible they really have a hate on for Israel and, by extension, Jews.”

Like many others, I was profoundly disheartened when the Director of the School of Social Work made the decision to remove the Statement on Peace and Justice from the website. But then again, how many could bear the pressure? How many of us run to find “neutral ground” or the “middle road” when we are being called anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and so on? How many of us could have remained steadfast in affirming our central demand for peace and justice while simultaneously rethinking and strengthening our commitment to social justice and change? How many of us would have kept our faith for social justice and peace in an institution with strong ties to money, and governed in part by profit?

Let me say a few words about the School of Social Work’s Statement on Peace and Justice. I think the statement could have a done a better job at contextualizing why peace and justice is important to social work and social workers. I think the Statement could have said that social work, as a profession, is deeply concerned for peace and justice. This concern stems not from any claim to a moral higher ground. In fact, social work itself has been complicit in human suffering by implicitly supporting institutionalized sytems of inequality and exclusion. It is precisely this complicity that requires social work as a profession to continually engage historical lessons of its own participation in the colonial nation-building project and its associated patrimonial and patronizing attitudes at home and abroad.

One only needs to read about and listen to Indigenous Peoples to learn about the terror inflicted upon their communities by the “social welfare system” and social workers. Social work as a profession must be concerned for peace and justice because it needs to be attentive to and responsible for its own history and contemporary actions. And yes, social work as a profession and social workers in general are engaged and driven by a desire to name, address, engage, challenge, and work to eradicate various forms of social, historical, economic and political subjugations.

Certainly, the Statement could have done a better job at articulating and contextualizing why peace and justice are central concerns for social workers.

The second point I would like to address is the Statement’s failure to clearly state that it opposes anti-Semitism and denounces the increase of anti-Semitism globally. I think this should have been included in the Statement not because I am overly concerned for what Mr. Abrams and Bob Goldschmid might call a “balanced” viewpoint, but because it is the just thing to do, the necessary thing to do, and the peaceful thing to do.

The accusations and requests for a two-sided view, however, are often strategies for assuming equality in relationships; this strategy can also result in the refusal of responsibility and become a pursuit of innocence, because it fails to account for the inequalities, disproportionality, and asymmetrical relations of power, status and privilege that already do exist in a specific context. I believe it is incumbent upon all those who speak out and work for peace and justice that we do so by taking on, and working from, multiple positions, while being attentive to the relative historical and collective weight carried by different positionalities.

We must cry out, work for, and demand an end to Israeli state terrorism against Palestinian people and simultaneously cry out, work for, and demand an end to anti-Semitism at home and abroad. Absolutely, the statement should have articulated a deep and abhorrence of the local and global increase of anti-Semitism.

I would like to say a few more words about the Statement. I am fully aware that many people have used the last couple of years to capitalize in hateful ways on the critiques of Israeli state terrorism. There is a danger, I believe, as the increase of anti-Semitism illustrates, to see the Israeli State as somehow more evil, more treacherous, than other nation states, historically and presently, in deploying state terrorism and the project of colonialism. I do not believe that Israel is somehow extraordinary in its deployment of state terrorism or in its colonizing project. I do not think the State of Israel has some how cornered the market on what is done in the name of nationalism, nation building, and “protecting borders.”

One only needs to take a humbling glance at the history of our own colonial project here at home: distributing blankets intentionally infected with small pox; residential schools; forced sterilizations; theft of land and water; broken treaties; refusal to negotiate treaties; cultural, religious and educational genocide; medical experimentations; the forced extinctions of people’s languages; theft of cultural and religious symbols; detainments, arrests and imprisonments; forced settlements and resettlements. The list of Canada’s colonial and colonizing project deployed against Indigenous Peoples is damning and seemingly inexhaustive.

The fact of the matter is, however, that the School of Social Work’s Peace and Justice Statement does not attribute any extraordinary qualities to the State of Israel but simply and sadly speaks of well-documented, long-standing and patterned instances of countless breaches of UN resolutions and International Humanitarian Law. The central message of the Peace and Justice Statement is a stand and a position against colonialism and imperialism anywhere and by any nation (a key point which got lost in all the recent media attention).

It is important to recognise the difference between anti-Semitism and condemnations of colonialism, racism and injustice. It is crucial that critiques of the Israeli state, or voices that speak out against occupation and Zionism, are not conflated with anti-Semitism.

Ironically, it is the response by Mr. Abrams and Mr. Goldschmid that attributes extraordinary qualities to the Israeli state and not the School’s Statement itself. The Statement is quite clear that it is Israeli state policy and the occupation that is to be contested, not the Jewish people themselves. Strangely and sadly, it is in fact Mr. Abrams and Mr. Goldschmid’s response — “It’s possible they really have a hate on for Israel and, by extension, Jews” — and not the statement itself, that equates Israel’s colonial occupation practices with Jewish people, Judaism, and the entire rich and impressive history of Jewish thought, culture, and heritage. This, of course, is a racist construction and must be challenged.

Anyone concerned for peace and justice, as the School’s statement was, must never equate state occupation and colonial practices with the qualities of any peoples themselves. There are many Jewish groups, organisations and individuals, both within and outside of Israel, who continue to call for an end to occupation, and who have strongly supported the Palestinian Intifada and its goals.

Many Jewish groups have launched campaigns for US and international divestment from the Israeli state due to the policies and actions of the Israeli government. Many Jewish groups have been steadfast in their demands for the creation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state in all of the occupied territories. They have displayed, through their actions, their commitment to equal human rights and social justice for all peoples. These groups include Jewish Unity for a Just Peace, the Jewish Committee on the Middle East, the Refuser Solidarity Network, and Women in Black. Numerous groups and individuals, both inside and outside Israel, continue to work in solidarity with other human rights based group to push for an end to occupation.

Finally, I must address Mr. Abrams and Goldschmid’s remark that “the concern of the Jewish community is that this is an inappropriate place to make this kind of value judgment or political statement.” Some might argue (and some have) that the University is a place that produces decent, compliant, capitalist citizens. The academy becomes a site where lines are well-formed to ensure that particular cultural and ideological values are nurtured, thus naturalizing the imperatives of the individualistic global empire. Students are then ready and prepared to accept standardized and universalised truths in order to continue complying with the bidding and desires of the nation.

Accepting this model means that being “successful,” “model” citizens (or “good” social workers) requires our acceptance of dominant narratives as universal truisms.

However, universities need to work harder to utilize democratic processes in order to produce and disseminate knowledges that are not controlled by outside or hegemonic forces. Universities have to exercise autonomy and create a space for intellectual inquiry and dialogue. Closing the door on debate precludes such dialogue and thus decreases the possibility of moving towards justice and social equality. By revoking and thus censoring the School of Social Work’s Statement on Peace and Justice, the University chose to legitimate one voice and to consolidate a singular (and dominant) version of knowledge. By revoking their Statement, the School (and University) shut down a dissenting voice.

I believe that the university and the School of Social Work should be a place where we openly challenge, discuss and debate a wide range of ideas and perspectives. Moreover, the call to pay attention to issues of human rights and the imperative to voice demands for peace and social justice cannot be practices that are merely “reserved” for particular places or occasions. The responsibility to speak out against injustice, both locally and globally, is a responsibility incumbent upon all individuals, groups and institutions, at all moments, and in every domain of life — there are no “inappropriate” places or times for this sort of endeavour.

It seems that the greatest threat to peace and justice is the foreclosure, the silences, the desire to shroud the various axes of power, and the containment and disciplining of dissenting voices. I would like to close with the words of a woman who so passionately wrote and believed in the project of freedom and justice:

“When we are told that by freedom we understood free enterprise, we did very little to dispel this monstrous falsehood. Wealth and economic well being, we have asserted, are the fruits of freedom, while we should have been the first to know that this kind of ‘happiness’ has been an unmixed blessing only in this country, and it is a minor blessing compared with the truly political freedoms, such as freedom of speech and thought, of assembly and association, even under the best conditions.” (Hannah Arendt).

(Fairn Herising, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Work at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, is a member of the University’s Anti-Racist Action Coalition.)