Mediating the Situation at York University

Stephen Block

Aug. 21, 2020 – By STEPHEN BLOCK

The situation at York University continues to evolve. A brief refresher: In November 2019, a violent confrontation broke out between supporters of Herut Canada, a campus group that had invited active reservists of the Israel Defense Forces to speak against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and protestors affiliated with another campus organization, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, whose members – as the name suggests – are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and BDS, and oppose the occupation.

In light of the melee that autumn night, York president Rhonda Lenton appointed former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell to undertake an independent review. Among Cromwell’s many suggestions was that York consider the definition of antisemitism as formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in developing its policies.

This suggestion itself became a subject of controversy. First, York’s faculty union, YUFA, expressed concern and opposed endorsing the IHRA definition. In its statement, YUFA said:

“While the YUFA Executive opposes antisemitism and all forms of racism and hatred, we see the adoption of the IHRA definition as a potential threat to academic freedom at our university as it can be used to restrict the academic freedom of teachers and scholars who have developed critical perspectives on the policies and practices of the state of Israel.”

Next, while the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism does not clearly state that supporting BDS is antisemitic, a group of York professors who support Israel offered the interpretation that “(t)he IHRA definition …does… associate movements such as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, whose expressed purpose is the destruction of the world’s lone Jewish state) with antisemitism.”

This latter interpretation, in turn, has potential implications for the career of tenured professor Faisal Bhabha at Osgoode Hall Law School. Bhabha, In the course of a panel discussion on June 10, sponsored by Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression (CFE) on the subject of “Fighting Anti-Semitism or Silencing Critics of Israel…?” made the following statement, for which he has received considerable flak:

“I am describing what I understand Zionism to be as an idea and as a practice, which is the suppression of Palestinian human rights for the purpose of ensuring Jewish supremacy, and it is exactly what is being protested against today in the United States against white supremacy…I am equating white supremacy with Jewish supremacy. I think both are equally morally repugnant and deserve to be called out and spoken against.”

It should also be noted that B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre have weighed in on this, B’nai Brith going so far as to begin a petition to have Bhabha removed as a teacher of human rights, appealing directly to Lenton.

The central question is: Does the York situation potentially afford us a way out of the seemingly interminable arguments about “cancel culture” and threats to academic freedom, or could it make things worse?

Championing a definition of antisemitism that would seem to suit one side raises the question of whether it would be more appropriate to deal with this matter through a more formal process of dispute resolution.

Conventional dispute resolution mechanisms involve a neutral or disinterested third party, one often agreed upon by the disputing parties. The parties are then brought to the table, separately or simultaneously, and a mediator is asked to attempt to find a solution satisfactory to both parties. The primary strength of this method is a greater potential for a fair and stable outcome.

In some forms of mediation, an assumption is made that two disputing parties, acting in good faith, have overlapping goals, even if that is not evident to either party. The job of a skilled mediator is to convince the parties that in some respects, they care about the same things. No doubt that in this instance, there are gaps that are currently unbridgeable.

So how about underscoring the idea of making those points of contention the subject of discussion and debate? In that case, it would appear to change the consideration of what is and what is not within the bounds of reasonable discussion. Therefore, the Ryerson panel seemed an appropriate place for such a discussion.

Absent such discussions, the only alternative would seem to be stricter and more restrictive measures, as a dispute is assumed to be irresolvable and thereby dangerous to campus life. It also promotes a de facto policy that disputing parties must be kept separate. A mediated approach would suggest the opposite – that the parties must be brought together, in one way or another, if a workable solution is to be found. Compelling or encouraging them to openly confront the issues under discussion affords the prospect of a display of mutual respect otherwise made impossible in an environment of choose-up-sides tribalism.

In industrial relations, a mediator acceding to demands from one party in a dispute would not be seen as neutral. This is the challenge that Lenton faces in preparing her formal reply.


Stephen Block
Stephen Block

Stephen Block has a PhD in Industrial Relations and Public Affairs from the University of Montreal and Concordia University, and a graduate diploma in Conflict Resolution from Carleton University.