What Do We Mean When We Talk About Free Speech?

Oct. 9, 2020

By ZACK BABINS

Picture a large Canadian university with a law school. The school is set to offer a directorship to an academic with a long history of pro-Israel scholarship and activism in Zionist causes.

At the last moment, a Canadian Muslim – a federal judge who, along with his family, have been massive donors to this school, likely in the millions – calls the school’s fundraising team. From that point on, negotiations with the Zionist academic are cancelled and the position is somehow “no longer available.”

What would we as a community do? 

Certainly, this school would be labeled antisemitic. It would make the Top 10 list of every “antisemitic school where Jewish students aren’t safe.” We would lament the decline of academia and people would warn their children to stay away from that “Jew-hating school.”

The influencers and organizations that make a living defending Israel would see a spike in donations.

Eventually, the right-wing pundits, Jewish and Gentile, would cry that free speech is about listening to arguments and ideas that you don’t like, and would wonder whether today’s students are so soft (and antisemitic) that they could not tolerate a Zionist Jewish teacher.

This isn’t a hypothetical. We just changed some parts of speech.

Explosive recent media reports alleged that Justice David Spiro, a Tax Court of Canada judge, megadonor to the University of Toronto, and former board member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, had improperly interfered in the hiring of Prof. Valentina Azarova.

Azarova, who is not Palestinian but sympathetic to Palestinians, and more than occasionally focuses her academic work on the Palestinian cause, was reportedly quite close to landing a position as director of U of T’s International Human Rights Program. According to the school, the program isn’t hiring a director at all.

Law professor Audrey Macklin, who chaired the faculty advisory committee, and was part of the selection panel that unanimously found Azarova the best candidate for the job, resigned from the board in protest.

The Canadian Judicial Council is now considering multiple complaints about Spiro’s conduct. And over 1,000 lawyers, academics, and activists have signed a petition asking U of T’s law school to apologize and reinstate the job.

And in an open letter to University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, a slew of international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said they are “deeply concerned” that U of T’s law school dean responded to “external pressure, following the objection of a law school donor to Dr. Azarova’s work on international law and human rights in the Israel-Palestine context.”

One would think that the champions of free speech would be all over this one. But the brave “marketplace of ideas” folks, who have no qualms defending transphobes, homophobes, racists and white nationalists under the banner of free speech, are nowhere to be found. Similarly, those who argue that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” just can’t be bothered to defend an academic who, by their standards, has had her right to free speech violated.

One op-ed submitted by a Jewish organization claimed that “a long history of one-sided critiques of Israel” justified these events. What if the shoe was on the other foot? If a long history of “one-sided activism” surrounding Israel can disqualify you from a job, well, I’ve got some bad news for a lot of my friends who went to Jewish day school, summer camp or synagogue. 

I haven’t even mentioned yet how damaging this move – which any PR consultant could tell you would not remain private for longer than a week – may be to Jewish students who are actually on campus, who will now face slurs and tropes about Jewish power and influence.

Frankly, I’ve never been a free speech evangelist. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but it must be restrained by reasonable limits to protect marginalized communities from hatred and violence. History bears out that hate speech almost never remains “just words.” 

We either care about free speech or we don’t. We either care about academic freedom or we don’t. We either care about outside political interference in our universities – including the “outside agitators” that Hasbara organizations love to remind you are sent to campuses to scuttle BDS motions and anti-Israel campaigns – or we don’t.

To paraphrase the great “Rabbi” Jon Stewart, if you don’t stick to your values when they’re used by your opponents, you don’t have values. You have hobbies.

We have to make a decision – a microcosm of the same decision Israel has to make when it attempts to administer a democratic state that prioritizes one religion that’s necessary to the idea of a Jewish democracy.

Does Zionism – specifically, right-wing, tribal, expansionist, Revisionist Zionism that leaves no room for the humanity of Palestinians – supersede liberal democratic values like free speech? Are you prepared to defend Israel, no matter the cost? 

In other words, we must decide whether we are prepared to sacrifice our souls. I’m not prepared to do that, and I’m not alone.


Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, a political communicator and activist, and amateur challah baker. All opinions are his own. You can find him on Twitter @zackbabins.

SUCHAROV: Fauda is Binge-Worthy but Can be Painful

By MIRA SUCHAROV

With news that another IDF soldier has been killed in a Palestinian village in the West Bank, attention on the occupation is as necessary as ever. At what cost is this half century of brutality – to everyone – and to what end? Through the Israeli hit show Fauda, Netflix viewers have a binge-worthy way to think more fully about the occupation. But is it doing the trick?

When it comes to reactions, the divide between mainstream Jewish audiences and Palestinian ones is stark. For the most part, Jewish audiences have been eager and appreciative viewers of the series.

“The Israeli characters are flawed and damaged by the relentless stress of trying to contain and confront terrorism,” said one Facebook friend, making clear the causal arrows in his mind – between Palestinian violence and Israeli containment. “I heart Doron,” wrote another, in reference to the tough-but-tender-hearted protagonist, played by Lior Raz. Before the pandemic shuttered the buildings, Raz, also the show’s co-creator, filled Jewish community centres on cross-continent speaking tours.

But Palestinians, and those who are active in the Palestine solidarity movement, are just as likely to be put off by the show. “Shooting and crying,” another Facebook friend wrote, referring to the oft-heard leftwing criticism that Israeli liberals and centrists clutch their pearls over ongoing military violence against Palestinians but do nothing to actually stop it. “I hope there isn’t a fourth season,” another chagrined-but-clearly addicted friend told me, tongue in cheek. “It’s total Israeli propaganda. And I’ll simply have to watch it.”

In terms of overall production values, there’s a lot to like about Fauda. With the exception of the first three or four episodes of Season 3, where the writing turned wooden and some details were lacking, and in which Bashar took off his boxing gloves, revealing bare hands – something especially irksome to me, a weekend sparrer – the show has been excellent television.

So, what about the politics of it all? First, let’s consider the goals. The creators have emphasized that they have indeed tried to make a balanced product. It’s not only “the number of dead you can count on both sides. It’s the scars that are left on the heart of the people that are part of this war,” co-creator Avi Issacharoff told me when I interviewed him upon the show’s release in 2015.

But when it comes to live issues of justice and human rights, we need to consider the new-old chestnut impact versus intent, a phrase that’s become popular in critical race and social justice circles. Whatever even-handed hope the creators may have harboured, whatever goals they may have held about advancing the stories of both sides, we need to consider how the series is experienced by those whose lives are most affected by Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

Palestinians are less than lukewarm about it.

In 2018, Palestinian-Israeli literary sensation Sayed Kashua bemoaned the fact that “there is nothing in Fauda that addresses the reality in the territories. In Fauda, there are no rulers or ruled, no occupation, no historical background, no checkpoints, poverty, home demolitions, expulsions, settlers or violent soldiers.”

More recently, George Zeidan, co-founder of Right to Movement Palestine, called the show “barely subliminal anti-Arab incitement.” And in an ironic twist, Palestinian educator Kefah Abukhdeir pointed to the importance of showing the degree of surveillance to which everyday Palestinians are subjected. “In a small way,” she writes, “I guess it’s good that now you know. But the truth is, it’s almost unbearable to see this show get plaudits when we were not believed, when we were silenced, when we were called racist for pointing this out for decades.”

It’s true that I once believed that a show like this, with more Arabic than Hebrew, with generally fully drawn characters of all stripes, with the showcasing of Palestinian actors who might not otherwise have many outlets, may very well help pry open the gates of mutual understanding, as good television and cinema can. And while, in a cinematic sense, I also heart Doron, I, too, can’t deny that when it comes to Israeli archetypes (I was also raised on the ideal of Sabra-style masculinity) I simply can no longer promote the show as one that helps the cause of peace and justice.

When I really try to listen to the effect this show is having on the viewers who are the most vulnerable to Israeli violence, those who suffer the indignities of occupation surveillance and the injustice of collective punishment and the mass casualties of asymmetric war, when I really pause to look away from the screen and be open to their voices, I hear the message that Fauda hurts.


Mira Sucharov

Mira Sucharov is professor of political science and University Chair of Teaching Innovation at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is the author, most recently, of Public Influence: Op-Ed Writing and Social Media Engagement. Her latest book, Borders and Belonging: A Memoir, is forthcoming.

ROYTENBERG: Thinking About Annexation

By DAVID ROYTENBERG

After more than a year and three elections, a majority in the Israeli Knesset has agreed to form a government. Article 29 of the coalition agreement says, “As of July 1, 2020, the Prime Minister will be able to bring the agreement reached with the United States regarding the application of sovereignty for discussion by the cabinet and the government and for the approval of the government and/or the Knesset.”

Annexation of territory by Israel in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians is controversial in Israel, even more so in the rest of the world. Other than the Trump administration in the U.S., no foreign government supports it. Nevertheless, the new government will begin to address the question this summer.

What are the arguments for and against annexation? What can we expect to happen if the government goes ahead with it? Now is the time for a calm examination of the case for and against annexation.

Arguments against annexation rest on different premises. Some are moral. For example, some argue that Palestinian Arabs are a dispossessed people who have already lost most of their land to Israel. “Surely,” this argument goes, “they are entitled to a state in the territory captured by Israel in June 1967, a territory which represents only 28 percent of pre-state Mandate Palestine.”

Other arguments are legal: Lands beyond the Green Line are occupied Palestinian territory, they argue. Israel has no right to keep territory acquired by force. Occupation may continue as long as there is a security risk, but the legal status of the territory cannot be changed by Israel unilaterally.

Yet another line of argument is pragmatic. The status quo favours Israel. Even if Israel has a right to annex the territory, this line of reasoning says it is foolish to do so because it will inflame the Arab population living under Israeli rule, anger Israel’s peace partners – Jordan and Egypt – destroy diplomatic progress with other Arab governments, turn global public opinion against Israel, and mobilize neutral governments behind a campaign to punish Israel diplomatically and economically.

For those who advocate annexation, there is a similar mixture of arguments.

The moral argument for annexation is that all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is rightly the heritage of the Jewish people. We were driven out of it by force in ancient times and again at the 1948 War of Independence. Neither the ancient nor modern conquest was just, and now the territory has been reclaimed in a defensive war. To relinquish territory that we hold now would be a betrayal of the Jewish people and the God of our ancestors.

Moreover, the land under discussion represents only 21 percent of the territory of Palestine as constituted under the British Mandate after the First World War, while 79 percent was set aside for the Palestinian Arab majority. To ask the Jews to give up part of the remaining 21 percent for another Palestinian Arab state is unjustified.

The legal argument for annexation rests on the British Mandate as endorsed by the League of Nations at the San Remo conference in April 1920. This measure designated Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people and envisioned a future Jewish majority as the oppressed Jews of Europe and elsewhere returned home. The mandate guaranteed the civil rights but not the national rights of the Arabs in the Jewish homeland. Israel is obligated to extend equal rights to its Arab population, including any territory that is annexed. Palestinian Arab national identity can be expressed in the Kingdom of Jordan.

The pragmatic argument for annexation is that Israel has tried the path of negotiation and compromise, and those have proven futile. After opening the door to territorial concessions in the Oslo Accords, the result has not been peace but decades of terror, launched from the area where Israel had given up control. For the sake of peace, it would be worthwhile to cede Jewish land for another Palestinian Arab State, but peace is not on offer. Therefore, we should assert our claim.

Wherever you stand in this complicated discussion, it is useful to understand the reasoning behind the arguments. While it may seem like a dialogue of the deaf, each position rests on different premises and different readings of history. Annexation is a significant departure from the cautious Israeli behaviour of the past 25 years. It will be useful to bear these arguments in mind as events unfold in the months to come.


David Roytenberg
David Roytenberg

David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa.  He is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.