U of T Hiring Controversy Continues to Swirl

Oct. 20, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Jewish groups are urging the University of Toronto’s law school to stand firm and not employ a scholar with a long history of criticizing Israel.

Valentina Azarova

At least two Jewish U of T faculty, B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation, and Canadians for Israel’s Legal Rights are calling on U of T to refuse to hire Valentina Azarova to lead the law school’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP).

U of T professors Stuart Kamenetsky and Howard Tenenbaum have started a petition arguing Azarova’s long history of targeting Israel in her writings make her unfit for the appointment.

“Frankly, we believe that she should not even have been considered as a candidate to lead the IHRP,” the professors say in their preamble.

In a news release, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn called Azarova’s past associations “worrying,” adding her body of writing is “overwhelmingly devoted, arguably obsessively committed” to Palestinian causes.

“Far from being an impartial academic, as she is often portrayed, Azarova is actively devoted to using a wide variety of platforms to promulgate anti-Israel advocacy,” Mostyn said.

Azarova and her supporters claim she was offered a position as director of the IHRP but that the offer was withdrawn after a Jewish mega-donor objected.

The controversy grew so intense that the university agreed to an “impartial review” of how the law school has handled the affair.

And the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is threatening the school with censure.

At the same time, the Tax Court of Canada judge whose alleged interference in the hiring process ignited the affair is being investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council. 

Law school dean Edward Iacobucci has denied that a formal employment offer was ever made to Azarova because of immigration difficulties.

Azarova’s supporters allege the university reneged on the deal because Justice David Spiro of the Tax Court objected to her history of legal writing that has accused Israel of widespread violations of Palestinian human rights. Spiro and his extended family are major donors to the university.

CAUT says if the allegation of donor interference in the appointment is true, it violates the principle of academic freedom.

On Oct. 15, CAUT’s executive council passed a motion approving a process of censuring U of T if “satisfactory steps” are not taken.

The imposition of censure still requires the approval of CAUT’s governing body. That meeting is set for Nov. 27.

Censure by the association would ask its more than 70,000 members at 125 universities and colleges across the country to refuse appointments, speaking engagements or honours at the University of Toronto.

In addition, CAUT will also “widely publicize” the dispute and ask associations of academic staff in other countries to respect the censure.

“The facts that have emerged strongly suggest the decision to cancel Azarova’s appointment was politically motivated, and as such would constitute a serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom,” CAUT executive director David Robinson said in an Oct. 15 statement.

In an earlier letter to U of T president Meric Gertler, Robinson said that “an institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its purpose and mission if it accedes to outside pressure or asserts the power to proscribe ideas, no matter how controversial.”

CAUT’s voice is only part of the chorus condemning the situation around Azarova’s hiring. The entire advisory board to the International Human Rights Program, and a member of the search committee, resigned in protest. Lawyers and academics from around the world have expressed anger.

Last week, for example, a letter signed by nine U of T law school faculty accused Iacobucci of “high handed” management that threatens to destroy the institution’s reputation.

Another letter to Gertler from 200 international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said the signers were “deeply concerned” the dean allowed external pressure to influence an appointment.

They called for an investigation of the affair, reinstatement of the offer to Azarova, sanctions against those responsible at the university, and apologies to Azarova and affected faculty and staff.

Iacobucci has never denied that a donor contacted the school about the potential appointment. In a letter to law school faculty released by the university, he called claims of outside interference “untrue and objectionable.”

He added: “Other considerations, including political views for and against any candidate, or their scholarship, were and are irrelevant.”

University leaders have backed that position since September, but on Oct. 14, they announced an independent review of the controversy to be led by Bonnie Patterson, former president of Trent University and the Council of Ontario Universities.

In a statement on the university’s website, Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s vice-president of human resources and equity, said Patterson is to “review all relevant documents and conduct interviews in order to provide (a) a comprehensive factual narrative of events pertaining to the search committee process and (b) the basis for the decision to discontinue the candidacy of the search committee’s preferred candidate.”

Participation in the review is voluntary and Patterson’s recommendations will be made public. Her report is due in January.

The terms of reference for the review have drawn derision from commentators, however.

James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, told the CJR that “there’s not much investigation left to do” because the facts of the case are already well known.

Both Turk and Robinson criticized the review’s terms of reference, noting they do not include the central question of whether Azarova was offered a job or whether improper pressure scuttled an offer.

And a review of the affair by Hannah-Moffat, Iacobucci, and U of T provost Cheryl Regehr is also troubling because all three have been involved in the scandal, Turk said.

“Any first year law student would know this is just crazy,” he said.

In a news release, Robinson of the CAUT said the proposed study’s flaws undermine its credibility.

“Given the seriousness of the case, what is needed is an independent review,” he said in a news release. “Instead we have a deeply flawed review where the investigator is appointed by and reports to the Vice-President for Human Resources who has already publicly defended the Dean’s decision to terminate the hiring of Dr. Azarova.”

To see Prof. Azarova’s curriculum vitae, click here: https://cdn.ku.edu.tr/resume/vazarova.pdf

For Zack Babins’ view on the Azarova controversy, click here.

BREAKING: West Bank Wine Case Shuts Out Interveners

Oct. 8, 2020

Jewish advocacy groups will not have a say in the case of the wine labels from Israel.

In a recent ruling, a Federal Court judge denied intervener status to a dozen organizations that sought input in the ongoing challenge to wines made in the West Bank but labeled as “Product of Israel.”

Psagot Winery

They included the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights.

One of wineries at the centre of the case, Psagot Winery Ltd., was added to the case as a respondent, but the court said its participation “must be limited.”

At issue in the case is whether wines produced by the Psagot and Shiloh wineries in West Bank Jewish settlements can be labeled as “Product of Israel” under Canadian law.

Last year, a Federal Court judge found that “made in Israel” labels on settlement wines are “false, misleading and deceptive” because international law does not recognize the West Bank as part of Israel, and that Canadians have a right shop “conscientiously.” She returned the case to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s appeals board for further consideration.

The government appealed her ruling. But before the appeal could be heard, a judge dismissed everyone who wanted to weigh in on the case, saying, in effect, that the court will not be drawn into a battle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his ruling, Federal Court of Appeal Judge David Stratas said that “a number” of parties wishing to intervene wanted to address “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including the status of the West Bank, the territorial sovereignty of Israel, human rights and humanitarian concerns, issues of international law, and other related issues. Many of them appear to want this Court to rule on the merits of these issues.

“But there is one basic problem,” the judge wrote. “This appeal does not raise the merits of these issues.”

He said the case should properly rest on Canadian laws regulating the labeling of food and drugs, which are designed to protect consumers. There is “nothing to suggest,” Stratas said, that these laws “were enacted to address state occupation of territories and, in particular, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.”

The Israel/West Bank issue “is a controversial one, with many differing views and deeply-felt opinions on all sides,” the judge went on. However, it is not “useful” for the appeals court to hear the interveners.

In addition to CIJA and B’nai Brith, Stratas dismissed requests to intervene from Independent Jewish Voices, the Centre for Free Expression, Amnesty International Canada, Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, Prof. Michael Lynk (the UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights), the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, the Transnational Law and Justice Network, and Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights, Al-Haq.

Independent Jewish Voices and B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights were interveners in the Federal Court case.

Stratas also took aim at other judges who “give the impression that they decide cases based on their own personal preferences, politics and ideologies. Increasingly, they wander into the public square and give virtue signalling and populism a go.”

The judge said he didn’t want to be too hard on the prospective interveners, saying he suspects that some of them were “lured” to the appeal “by torqued-up press reports distorting what the Federal Court decided. And once one group applies to intervene on a controversial issue like this, others feel they also have to apply.”

The Psagot winery, about 20 kilometers northeast of Jerusalem in an Israeli settlement of the same name, was added to the case as a respondent because the court should have notified it of the case, said the judge. The court said the winery was “never invited” to join the case but should have been, and that it found out about the matter from media reports.

The winery “is pleased to have been granted the opportunity to be a party to this important legal proceeding,” said its lawyers, David Elmaleh and Aaron Rosenberg of the Toronto firm RE-LAW.

The firm’s website leaves little doubt about how it feels when it comes to the winery’s legal status:

“Psagot Winery’s wines are produced by Israelis under the auspices of an Israeli company in an Israeli community on Israeli land subject to Israeli law, in the State of Israel, and in the Land of Israel. Its wines are products of Israel.”

In a statement to the CJR, David Matas, legal counsel to the League for Human Rights, found fault with Stratas’ “over-generalizations.”

Also, this ruling was made by a single judge. “Yet the appeal itself will be heard, presumably, by a panel of three judges. The other two members of the panel might disagree with this judge on many of the statements he made.”

Interveners may ask the court to reconsider its decision within 10 days of the ruling, but “it is too early for B’nai Brith Canada to decide whether we will or will not do so.”

The case goes back to 2017, when Winnipeg resident David Kattenburg raised concerns with Ontario’s liquor board that products from the two wineries were from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, not from Israel itself, and were deceptively labeled as “Product of Israel.”

He then complained to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which sided with him. However, after Jewish groups protested, the agency abruptly reversed course, saying the wines could be sold under the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.

Kattenburg appealed to the agency’s Complaints and Appeals Office, which upheld the reversal. He then sought a judicial review at the Federal Court.

The court sided with Kattenburg, and Jewish groups urged an appeal based on what they said were errors committed by the judge. The government agreed. Due to delays brought about by COVID, it is not clear when the matter will be heard.

* The above clarifies that the Psagot winery was added to this case as a respondent, not an internever.

– By CJR Staff

Mediating the Situation at York University

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.