By STEPHEN BLOCK
An independent report by Justice Thomas Cromwell on a violent confrontation that took place at York University on Nov. 20, 2019 was well described in the CJR edition of June 2. On that date last autumn, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) disrupted an event organized by Herut Canada in which Herut had invited Israel Defense Forces reservists to speak. Both clubs were sanctioned by York. The altercation was indeed very violent, with both sides expressing concern for physical safety.
Cromwell noted that “especially in the United States, universities have been exploited by controversial speakers who see the schools as prestigious and inexpensive venues.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Concordia University faced a seemingly similar situation when Benjamin Netanyahu was to deliver a speech sponsored by Hillel Concordia on Sept. 9, 2002. I was present at that event and can offer some context.
I was also in Israel in March 1996, a few months after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. It was common knowledge then that Netanyahu had done what he could to incite people to oppose the accord that Rabin was to sign with Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu and right-wing conservatives saw the Oslo Accords as a giveaway to Israel’s enemies. Netanyahu himself said that Rabin’s government was “removed from Jewish tradition…and values.”
In plain language, they were not real Jews.
The anti-Rabin, anti-peace rallies were ubiquitous throughout Israel. Labour was compared to Nazis; Rabin portrayed in the crosshairs of a gun, in a coffin, or a hangman’s noose, was compared to Hitler.
If we are to openly discuss hate speech directed at Jews, can we put such events on the table as well?
Hillel’s invitation to Netanyahu seemed like tacit support – a political statement. Clearly, it was seen as – let’s say – provocative. To be fair to Hillel, the group subsequently seemed to have changed its views and adopted a more inclusive approach.
The situation at York was quite different. Held some 17 years after the Concordia incident, there isn’t much question about Herut’s position here. Herut, or the “freedom” party, is not devoid of controversy. Founded in 1948 as a right-wing nationalist political party, it was denounced at the time by prominent Jews, mainly on the left, as “fascist,” even “terrorist.” Herut was mainstreamed when it merged with the Likud party in 1988.
And what of the Jewish Defence League, which was asked by Herut to provide “security” at the York event? The JDL has been characterized as a violent, anti-Arab Jewish nationalist organization. Following an internal review, York banned the Canadian director of the JDL from its campuses.
Defending Herut’s right to hold such an event should pose a special problem for Jews, not just for York. The question of religious-based campus organizations itself requires some focus. We are living in a world where we see the rise of religious nationalism, be it Muslim, Christian or Jewish, and now Hindu. Encouraging students to congregate among their own exclusively may be at the heart of the question, the result of which we only see when it breaks out into open conflict.
Where I work, we have an annual Trip for Tolerance, where students of any persuasion or background make a trip to a Holocaust memorial museum. But it is never meant to be “weaponized,” as Americans would say, merely to call out antisemitism.
On the matter of the IDF, I found my own family in Israel divided, post-1967. One cousin spoke only of the need for security, and of anti-war proponents as “naive.” On the other side, my kibbutznik relatives decried the militarization of Israel, and that they were told to spy on their Arab neighbours with whom they used to share the tilling of the soil.
We are not in Israel. We can afford a broader perspective, one that examines our own attitudes and questions the behaviour of those who claim to represent us, or speak on our behalf.
We as Jews know all too well that right-wing extremist organizations invoke “freedom” as their primary interest and decry the limiting of their speech or behavior, or both. As Jews, we need to apply that same test to our own.
Stephen Block teaches political philosophy and Propaganda Studies at Vanier College in Montreal. Brought up in a Zionist tradition, he has turned his attention to Middle East peace advocacy.