On Campus

Degrees of tension

Do Heather Reisman’s causes, or her profile, make her a target?

Ask Heather Reisman whether she feels more like a lightning rod or a pinata, and the response is a rather curt “neither.” Then again, the CEO of Indigo Books & Music also maintains she isn’t angry about protests by a handful of Mount Allison University staff, and like-minded individuals across the country, against the honorary degree she was awarded earlier this week. Irked, however, with occasional gusts to severely pissed, is exactly how she sounds. “This very same group of people have been protesting against me and against Indigo for three years,” she says. “There is an absolutely deliberate attempt to misinform; to twist facts.”

Indigo’s 61-year-old “chief book lover” was in august company at the May 17 commencement ceremonies in Sackville, N.B. With newly installed celebrity-chancellor Peter Mansbridge presiding, Mount A also conferred degrees on David Sobey, chairman of the eponymous grocery chain, Samantha Nutt, the founder of War Child Canada, and Toronto pastor and gay-rights activist Rev. Brent Hawkes. But Reisman was the one that faculty like David Thomas, a professor of international relations, took exception to, citing what he alleges are her “direct ties” to the Israeli Defense Forces. “This is a military that has been accused and found guilty on several occasions of gross violations of international humanitarian law,” he told the CBC. The Palestinian Solidarity Network and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid took up the cause, urging supporters to send letters of outrage to university officials.

At issue is a charity Reisman and her billionaire husband, Toronto businessman Gerry Schwartz, set up in 2005. The Heseg Foundation provides bursaries and pays living expenses for former IDF members who wish to study and settle in Israel, but have no family in country. Headquartered in a historic Tel Aviv mansion, the foundation supports approximately 125 “Lone Soldiers” each year. Reisman says her foes are misrepresenting both Heseg’s work and her own beliefs. “They are trying to suggest that the program is supportive of the war, that we in some way encourage people, who wouldn’t otherwise, to come to Israel, that we are doing bad things to people in the Palestinian territories,” she says. “Those are outright lies.”

The backlash was modest—about 100 emails at last count. And some, including a part-time instructor in the Mount A English department, objected to the honorary degree on completely different grounds, accusing Indigo of “bulldozing competitors” with predatory business practices that have killed off independent bookstores and small presses. (Mark Lefebvre, the incoming president of the Canadian Booksellers Association, doesn’t quite see it that way. “Most of the damage had been done by Chapters before Heather bought out the company.” Indigo is a colossus, but not a malevolent one, he says, citing the company’s support for literacy and expansion of book culture.)

Reisman’s take is that she’s a target because of her high profile. There’s no question that as one the country’s richest and most powerful couples, she and Schwartz tend to make headlines. Sometimes it’s for their good works, like a $5-million donation to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. On other occasions it has been for their enviable lifestyle; flashy cars, a private jet, mansions in Rosedale and Palm Beach, Fla., and a modest three-bedroom, two-bath beach house in Malibu, acquired in 2008 for US$19 million. As the country’s largest bookseller, Reisman can also make news by simply removing something from her shelves, as she did with Hitler’s Mein Kampf in 2001, and a 2006 edition of Harper’s magazine that republished a Danish newspaper’s controversial cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Her opinions matter. Sandwiched between her directorships at J. Crew and the sporting charity Right to Play, Reisman’s CV notes her place on the “steering committee” of the Bilderberg Group, an invitation-only annual confab that brings together 130 of the world’s business, military and financial leaders.

Israel is an emotional subject. A lifelong Liberal, major donor and former policy chair, she broke with the party in 2006 over interim leader Bill Graham’s stance on the Lebanon war. Reisman says she supports a two-state solution, but is reluctant to discuss her views in detail, lest there be further misinterpretation. “I think a lot of people basically have very strong opinions, and not a lot of knowledge,” she says.

Reisman does point to “Heather’s Pick” this month: I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey. She has been travelling across the country, hosting in-store events with the author Izzeldin Abuelaish, who continues to work for peace despite losing three of his daughters and a niece to an Israeli tank shell during the fighting in January 2009. It might be interesting to talk to him, she suggests. Abuelaish declined the interview request. “As Heather knows my message is a human one and I do not want it to be politicized or biased at all,” he wrote in an email. “Thank you for your understanding.”