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Azarova and her supporters claim she was offered a position as director of the IHRP but that the offer was withdrawn after a Jewish mega-donor objected.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

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.