Antisemitism has been a black mark on human civilization for centuries, from early Christian condemnations of Jews to modern-day conspiracy theorists, with countless acts of violence on every imaginable scale in between. And since the natural enemies of irrational ignorance are reason and knowledge, it follows that universities would be one venue where antisemitism can be confronted, understood, and ultimately defeated.
I was heartened, therefore, to see that the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat antisemitism recently released its final report, and that a long section of the report dealt with Canadian universities. But my keen interest increasingly turned to dismay as I read. The Coalition owed Canadians a much better discussion of antisemitism at universities than the authors of this report delivered.
First, there is the problem of the evidence. Reports such as these — which gather testimony from witnesses — already have a built in difficulty because the people they hear from naturally tend to be those who already have strong views on the subject. Invite people to come and talk to the Coalition Against Something, and most of those who show up are going to be people who already pretty upset about Something. Those who think they might be misconstrued as in favour of Something are less likely to appear. There is nothing wrong with activists having their say, of course, but it is incumbent on anyone trying to get a clear picture of the situation to search out other views and to corroborate, as best they can, the things that they are hearing.
In this case, of the sixty footnotes in the university section, many cite only the testimony of individuals with no corroboration, and, by my count, thirty-seven of them — the majority — cite Jewish advocacy groups and Jewish publications. Only eleven of the notes cite other articles and sources. This doesn’t make such testimony wrong, of course, nor does it make the perspectives invalid. But it seems clear that if the Coalition relies primarily on Hillel of Greater Toronto, Queen’s University Hillel, the Jeruselem Center for Public Affairs, and so on, they will probably be getting a particular slant. And if a report is to influence public and university policy, the policy makers should have every assurance that all sides were heard and heard clearly.
The second problem is the thorny issue of free expression: how do we promote tolerance without stomping on free speech? Here again, the authors fail to work out a convincing position. Indeed, while the report claims to value free expression, it simultaneously gives multiple indications that its authors would like to see free expression and academic independence curtailed. For instance, the report calls for “student spaces” that would be free of advocacy, but such a proposal raises all sorts of problems. How large would such spaces be? And how central? And how many? And what would count as advocacy? What if I advocate a particular position in a private conversation and am overheard? Do we really want to start sectioning off universities into zones where controversial discussion is allowed and zones where it isn’t?
More ominous is the final recommendation in the university section wherein professors are to “be held accountable” for the “rigour” of their courses. I am all in favour of rigour, of course, but universities already have mechanisms for that, and explicitly citing rigour in this context could pave the way for unfair restrictions of academic freedom whereby the content of a course — say a critical stance on Israel — could be challenged on the pretext that the course isn’t rigorous enough.
Israel and the criticism of it feature prominently in this section of the report. In a list of anti-Semitic events at Canadian universities, for example, the authors list a number of incidents that are obviously illegal and outrageous, such as threats and violence directed towards Jewish students; but they also list incidents which might have been cause for offence, but are, arguably, expressions of political, philosophical, or historical ideas, however clumsily they might have been stated. Calling for boycotts against Israel for perceived wrongdoing by that country is not in itself necessarily antisemitic. Likening Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid, similarly, may be shocking, and may, in the final analysis, be a bad analogy. But ad hominem arguments and bad analogies are things to refute with reasoned rebuttals, not things to ban by law or policy. The report says that using apartheid in the context of Israel is antisemitic, but by its own definition, criticism of Israel is only antisemitic if it singles out Israel in a way that other countries are not. But the very term apartheid comes from South Africa, another country. And Israel is not the only country to be accused of apartheid: a few minutes of searching turns up the term applied to women in Saudi Arabia, African Americans in the United States, and First Nations people in Canada.
The CPCCA was a good idea, and its members are, no doubt, well-meaning public servants. But at least as far as universities go, they need to start over. We need to have this conversation and it needs to be a thoughtful one. This report is not a good start.