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Legitimate Criticism vs. Inaccurate Discourse at the University of Toronto

Sep 27, 2016
By: Ari Blaff, University of Toronto, Hasbara Fellow


Samuel Adams rose before the Second Continental Congress at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia on August 1, 1776. Having declared independence less than a month prior, Adams appealed to his fellow citizens to renew their faith in the cause. Despite the hardships and privations to come, Adams asserted, “We have no other alternative than independence or the most ignominious and galling servitude.” To those whom remained loyal to Great Britain, Adams reserved a biting condemnation. “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom – go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!”

Many historical moments have exhibited analogous disunity and partisanship. The 1938 Munich Agreement by which international powers temporarily diffused Hitler’s broader territorial ambitions (today, widely considered an act of failed appeasement), at the time had political camps supporting and opposing such maneuvering. Likewise, in the ordeal leading up to the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, the motion to declare Israel a state was carried by a narrow majority. The dynamics of internal dissent are similarly witnessed in the American Civil Rights Movement concerning the divergent tactics of civil disobedience, embodied by Martin Luther King Jr., and separation and even violence, advocated by Malcolm X. It is an axiom of human nature that people interpret identical situations differently. It is unsurprising, then, that the ability to reconcile dissension and nurture unity is vital to a movement or group’s success. What distinguishes the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the Zionist Project, and Ataturk’s revolution of Turkish society following World War I, from the failures of the American Civil War, the internecine struggle for defining a Palestinian identity, or the false comforts of Hitler’s ambitions on the eve of World War II?

We, too, appear to be at such a historical crossroad. As became apparent upon recently attending a symposium on “Israel/Palestine: Divergent Ideological Frameworks, One Conflict”. The event, co-sponsored, by among other departments, the Anne Tannenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and the Institute of Islamic Studies – and spearheaded by a Jewish student – is perhaps the exemplification of the current climate on university campuses today. Apart for the first presenter, Oded Haklai, who did a commendable job in presenting the nuances and complexity of the issues over the past century, the unifying theme that night was settlements. Although the event’s inspiration was to serve as a bridge between the two communities and to cultivate the intercommunal bonds necessary for future cooperation, the views expressed were differentiated only in gradations of Israel’s culpability. One speaker, Amny Athamny, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Sociology Department, employed the use of genocide to describe the conflict (apartheid was invoked repeatedly by another speaker). Moreover, to lend some perspective to the range of views presented, the last speaker – a Canadian-Palestinian activist Nahla Abdo – previously published in Women’s Studies International Forum her reflections on the Second Intifada. Abdo expounded upon the barbarity of Israel. “As Israel creates monsters of its own young men by stripping them of all human qualities, such as mercy, love, life, morality and friendship with the neighbors by sending them to kill unarmed people (mostly children and young) under occupation, it also creates monsters out of the occupied. The difference, perhaps, is that the occupier can kill, watch his prey dissipate and gets away with it, while the frustrated, dehumanized human being under occupation take his life [i.e. suicide bombing] before seeing the result of his violence.”

Were an unacquainted student to have stumbled upon the talk, the unanimous conclusion they would have reached would be that Israel’s settlement policy is wholly liable for the current status quo: the systemic anti-Semitism, violent incitement, rampant corruption of the Palestinian Authority (PA), or popular support for a designated terrorist group (i.e. Hamas), was deemed categorically irrelevant. While Israel’s settlement policy should be scrutinized and judged, nonetheless, the comprehensive intellectual dishonesty to forgive Palestinian shortcomings while concurrently magnifying Israel’s is irreconcilable and inequitable.

Unfortunately, the symposium, whose raison d’etre was “to share diverse perspective, experiences, knowledges, and understandings” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “use academia as a critical and objective bridge between peoples” unequivocally failed to meet such basic principles as equal representation, fairness, or constructiveness. That the frameworks and arguments presented to empower future dialogue included speakers who believed the conflict to be defined by genocide, apartheid, and Israel’s propensity for dehumanization is indicative of the degradation of the intellectual environment on campuses today. More incriminating, that the University of Toronto’s Jewish Studies Department co-sponsored such an affair, implicitly endorsing the inclusion of such opinions, in pursuit of a peaceful dialogue is demeaning. While their rejoinder may be that they wished to promote an open dialogue, that they wrote cheques to encourage the expression of such antithetical beliefs is unwholesome.

The occurrence is part of a larger phenomenon roiling North American Jewry today. The questions of legitimate discourse and criticism are at the heart of such disputes.  In a similar vein, this past year witnessed Brown University’s Hillel chapter give tribute to the nakba (catastrophe), a Palestinian event commemorated intentionally on Israeli independence day. In a response letter to the negative reception following the revelation of such developments, Hillel member Will Tavlin, published an article in Forward entitled “Why We Flouted Hillel Rules to Hold Nakba Event at Brown University”. Among Tavlin’s central indictments is Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, “which bar perspectives deemed too critical of Israel and Israeli policy.” What are these incendiary standards? Among other stipulations: an unwillingness to partner with organizations which “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state”; those who delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double-standard to Israel; and those who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctioning (BDS) of Israel.  

Such developments are illustrative of the growing rift within North American Jewry coinciding with the proliferation and popularity of organizations as the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and J Street. The former, founded in 1996, in 2010 personally boasted a membership of 100,000. The organization actively supports the BDS movement – for instance, canvassing for the motion’s unsuccessful bid at the University of California, Berkeley – and upholds the comparison of the Palestinian nakba (the Palestinians who fled or were expelled during the 1948 War) with the Holocaust. Moreover, JVP recently endorsed Black Lives Matter’s (BLM) updated platform accusing Israel of “genocide” and “apartheid”.

J Street, an increasingly mainstream organization which labels itself a “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” movement, has exhibited a similarly troubling pattern of behaviour. The organization hosted Mustafa Barghouti, a co-founder of BDS and participant of the Gaza Flotilla, and Rachel Vilkomerson, CEO of JVP and proponent of BDS, at a conference. Furthermore, J Street urged the United States Government to “not veto a one-sided United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israel”, incurring the opprobrium of New York congressmen Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). "The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the U.N. Security Council is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out".

Recent developments underscore the continuing strain racking North American Jewry. Following Simone Zimmerman’s suspension from the Sanders campaign, over her comments on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Peter Beinart – author of The Crisis of Zionism and contributor to Haaretz – declared “If You Lose Simone Zimmerman, You Lose the Best of Jewish Millennials.” Among Beinart’s overarching arguments were Zimmerman’s crucifixion as “the latest victim of the U.S. Jewish Right’s witch hunt”. Zimmerman had a checkered relationship with Israel and political activism. In a 2015 Facebook post Zimmer castigated Netanyahu: “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative a*****e. He is the embodiment of the ugliest national hubris and tone-deafness towards the international community. F**k you.” As well, Zimmerman hosted a protest outside the Manhattan offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.

The bifurcation of the North American Jewish community along partisan lines is a divide which continues to define our era. Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism and Dov Waxman’s recent Trouble in the Tribe exemplify a growing segment within American Jewry who view Israel as increasingly illiberal, militaristic, and incongruent with liberal democratic values. However, for every dissenting opinion a vocal supporter has risen up to the nation’s defence: Bret Stephens’ criticism of Beinart’s publication and Jonathan Bronitsky’s of Waxman’s are a case in point. Is not Israel more secure and wealthier today than ever before? According to a poll conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the majority of scholars interviewed agree with the proposition.

Abraham Lincoln declared on the eve of the American Civil War that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” While many of us are consumed by the broader debates concerning Israel’s regional security and the corrosive attempts by international organizations to delegitimize its existence, so to must we rededicate and rebuild the intracommunal bonds which are vital for the strength and vitality of diasporic Jewish communities. This entails both a willingness to acknowledge legitimate criticism, as well as, an equal recognition that certain discourse is offensive and inaccurate. As Lincoln foresaw, amid the combustible environment of divisiveness, unity is not sustainable. Let us learn from history’s many lessons that we must strive to preserve the foundations upon which the Jewish people have long succeeded. As Lincoln chided the country on the eve of civil war, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory… will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Ari Blaff is a Hasbara Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

To Learn more about Hasbara Fellowships Canada, contact National Director Robert Walker at

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