A controversial series of Israel-bashing lectures at the University of Toronto may not have attracted many people, but it did manage to attract widespread media coverage that included a tickertape headline on CNN. Sponsored by the university’s Arab Student Collective, “Israel Apartheid Week” was “a cheap, misleading propaganda exercise detached from reality,” Israeli Ambassador Alan Baker said.
Still, it may have accomplished its aims.
The lecture series “has taken the words ‘Israel Apartheid’ and projected them into the mainstream media,” lamented Tilly Shames, director of Israel Affairs for Hillel of Greater Toronto. “The Arab Student Collective has seen this as a successful achievement.”
The collective launched the five-day lecture series by building an outdoor mock refugee camp, but the dozen or so participants were outnumbered by about 20 Jewish and pro-Israel students who distributed fact sheets about apartheid and positive material about Israel.
“It made me uncomfortable because the students seemed unwilling to dialogue with anyone who disagreed with their viewpoint,” said Lauren Parl, a fourth-year sociology student.
“It was very frustrating for us because we attempted to talk to them and they said, ‘We’re not willing to talk to you unless you recognize Israeli state terrorism.’ It didn’t make for a comfortable atmosphere,” she said.
Each of the five lectures during the week was premised on the notion that Israel is an apartheid or racist state. All were free and open to the public.
Josh Lieblein, a third-year life sciences student, said participants in the anti-Israel lectures made a concerted attempt to link Israel with the system of racial separation that once prevailed in South Africa.
“One speaker said, ‘Every time we say Israel, we must say apartheid right after,’ ” Lieblein said. “That’s a direct quote.”
The first four lectures were delivered by representatives of the International Solidarity Movement, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and other pro-Palestinian groups.
The fifth, on divestment and apartheid, was delivered by Ilan Pappe, an anti-Zionist Israeli academic from the University of Haifa.
The lectures each drew about 100 people, about one-third of whom were pro-Israel students seeking to counterbalance the content. A few shouting matches occurred, but student council and university officials were on hand to ensure that they didn’t grow into more serious confrontations.
The provocative lecture series apparently was timed to coincide with Hillel’s 20th annual IsraelFest, a 10-day, cross-campus celebration of Israeli arts and culture featuring a range of events, including a concert by Israeli musician Idan Reichel that drew 800 people. And more than 200 students showed up for Shabbat dinner.
The university received many requests to stop the anti-Israel lecture series, including one from B’nai Brith Canada, but Hillel, which is a constituent member of the Canadian Jewish Congress, did not request a cancellation.
“We do recognize the importance of upholding freedom of speech on campus for all groups,” Shames said. “While we disagree with the title, the tone and the objectives of Israel Apartheid Week, we felt we could not ask for speech to be banned from this campus before hearing what was said.”
However, Frank Dimant, national executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, said the university “was helping to create the building blocks of anti-Semitism in Canada and certainly in the world of academia” by allowing the events to proceed.
Fearful of the possibility of either hate speech or violence, B’nai Brith had urged the university to step up police presence at the venue, and university campus police were in attendance.
“When one considers the tens of millions of dollars that Jewish donors have poured into the University of Toronto, who now find their children and grandchildren marginalized on campus, it’s a real insult to the people who helped to build the university,” Dimant said.
“Is the University of Toronto hosting a free and scholarly exchange of ideas, or a racist rally masquerading as an academic conference?” asked Alistair Gordon, spokesman for the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, which had requested that the event be cancelled.
During the week, university provost David Farrar received hundreds of e-mails about whether to allow the lecture series to continue.
“The university is committed to the principles of free speech and, as such, permitted the student group to proceed,” he said. “The views may be repugnant to some, but they do not constitute hate.”
Hillel director Zac Kaye and other Jewish officials gave the university high marks for its response to Jewish students’ concerns.
“Our abiding concern was that Jewish students would not be intimidated and students in general could go about their business and there would not be a confrontation,” he said.
The university advised members of the Arab Student Collective about what constituted permissible conduct and only intervened to prevent a scheduled anti-Israel rally from taking place close to the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life. The rally was moved to a more neutral location on campus.
“I’m proud of the way our students have handled themselves on both sides,” Farrar said. “Our students understand that what we’re trying to do here is to create a safe environment in which people may talk about extremely controversial issues.”
“I think the Jewish students displayed admirable restraint,” Lieblein commented. “I think they held the high ground quite well.”