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Academics and Freedom By: Yuri Leving
Dalhousie News | Wednesday, February 25, 2009


[The following article is from Dal News, a campus paper for Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.)

Monday, 10 a.m. A loud siren sounds on campus. You have 15 seconds to find a safe place. It takes 60 seconds to run from the Henry Hicks Building to the nearest shelter. There are 400 students at the McCain Arts Building—and only four exits. A huge blast is heard. Smoke is rising somewhere on South Street.

Sounds scary, doesn't it? Take a deep breath, this is just a wild fantasy. However, imagine if Halifax or any other Canadian city was under continual fierce terrorist rocket attacks for the past eight years? What does it feel like living in daily fear of panic and death? Wouldn't you expect that your government and army would defend the lives of innocent children, women, and the elderly? For many Israeli citizens this is a depressing reality of the 21st century.

A series of recent events on campus related to the Middle East caused me dismay. First was a lecture titled “Global Gaza” by Jeff Halper, founder of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), then a Dalnews article "Humanitarian Crisis Deepens in Gaza" by Amal Ghazal. I found both items biased and misleading to the Dalhousie community. It is my deep belief that politics should be kept off campus—faculty members who are too politicized often confuse students and distract their colleagues from research. In the past, Dalhousie has successfully ensured the diversity of opinions; however, academic pluralism should be distinguished (and protected) from all forms of incitement and hate. The current wave of anti-Semitism in the world is dangerous as its effects are too well known in modern history.

I was not present at Mr. Halper’s lecture and therefore will not attempt to engage his absolutely mad accusations such as the one about “Israel’s furtive program of testing military weaponry and counter-insurgency tactics on the Palestinian people” (I quote from Joshua Tapper’s “Hot topic.” Dalnews, January 14, 2009). The really innovative tactics that come to my mind is that in order to avoid unnecessary casualties, the IDF dropped leaflets and sent SMS-messages in Arabic to civilians warning them of the forthcoming strikes against the militants in the area. So, here is my personal plea to the public lectures’ organizers and journalists: please do some quick fact checks! Introducing someone as “a 2006 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize” sounds preposterous for those familiar with the mechanism of this nomination. According to Nobel Prize nominating rules, any “professor of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology” and any judge or national legislator in any country, among others, can nominate anyone for a Nobel Peace Prize. Past nominees include Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Fidel Castro (Eugene Volokh. “Who Doesn’t Have a Nobel Prize Nomination?” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2005).

I realize that my colleague Amal Ghazal’s article was printed under the "opinion" rubric, but I am afraid that emotions blurred some historical truth here. Dr. Ghazal writes that Palestinians “were crammed [in Gaza] as a result of the 1948 war that led to the creation of the State of Israel.” The truth is the opposite: on May 14, 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence. Less than 24 hours later, the regular armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded the country, forcing Israel to defend the sovereignty it had regained in its ancestral homeland. In what became known as Israel's War of Independence, the newly formed, poorly equipped forces, consisting mainly of Holocaust survivors, repulsed the invaders in fierce intermittent fighting, which lasted more than a year and claimed over 6,000 Israeli lives (nearly one per cent of the country's Jewish population at the time).

Prof. Ghazal states that “in 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon under the pretext of putting an end to rocket attacks on northern Israel… In 2009, Israel is attacking Gaza under the same pretext.” The word “pretext” is absolutely wrong in application to Israel that has embarked on a defensive campaign against Hamas, a terrorist organization which, on a daily basis, has launched rocket and mortar barrages, thus threatening the lives of Israel's civilians – men, women, and children. Hamas’ Charter and declarations to this very day call for the destruction of Israel and, using anti-Semitic epithets, call for the annihilation of the Jewish people. Moreover, Hamas uses the Palestinian people as human shields and exploits civilian institutions as a cover for their terrorist operations by locating rocket launchers in mosques, hospitals, and universities.

Let me also offer the reminder here that Canada has terminated any contacts with the members of the Hamas cabinet and suspended direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority in 2006. In this current conflict, the Canadian government blamed Hamas for civilian casualties in Gaza, saying Hamas provoked the attack. (“Canada continues to fully support Israel's right to defend itself,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Peter Kent to public broadcaster CBC, January 7, 2009).

The cycle of Arab rejections of Israel’s appeals for peace was broken with the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, followed by negotiations between Egypt and Israel under American auspices. The resulting Camp David Accords contained a framework for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including a detailed proposal for self-government for the Palestinians. Is this the reason why Dr. Ghazal states that “the Egyptian regime, perhaps the most rotten and corrupt of all Middle Eastern dictatorships, has been an ally of Israel and is seen now as complicit in the war on Gaza”?

During the past decades, the various terrorist organizations launched numerous attacks inside Israel and abroad. One of the most notorious crimes was the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. In spite of the Palestinian commitment made in 1993 to renounce terrorism, thus providing the basis for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, brutal attacks nonetheless continued, and strongly intensified since September 2000 (suicide bombers attacking such places as cafes, pizzerias, shopping malls and public buses), resulting in the death of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians and the wounding of many thousands more.

It is appalling that the Canadian Union of Public Educators (CUPE) recently proposed to boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions in Ontario. In response, Scholars For Peace in the Middle East (SPME) has issued a petition for academics to protest. The petition which sought to raise at least 5,000 signatures has gained over 7,500 signatures in just 10 days. Among distinguished signatories to the petition are real laureates, not self-proclaimed luminaries: 1993 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology, Sir Richard J. Roberts at Boston University; 1979 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Steven Weinberg at University of Texas; 1972 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Kenneth Arrow at Stanford University; 1981 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Roald Hoffman, of Cornell University and 2004 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Aaron Ciechanover at The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

SPME hopes this will send a clear message to our colleagues that academic boycotts are antithetical to principles of academic freedom, unhelpful in resolving complex issues, and frequently based on fabrications and falsifications. Further, CUPE’s proposed action serves to also fuel anti-Semitic sentiments.

Whatever one’s opinion may be regarding this conflict, it should never be used to legitimize hate and incitement (to be abundantly clear, I do not believe this was the goal of Dr. Ghazal’s article). This problem is one of the central issues to be discussed at the academic conference “Emerging Trends in Anti-Semitism and Campus Discourse,” to be held at the University of Toronto, March 8-9, 2009. Organized by the Canadian Academic Friends of Israel in partnership with the Centre for Jewish Studies, the conference will focus upon exploring the topic of modern anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and its manifestation on Canadian campuses, as well as examining particular forms of increasingly prevalent discourse, emerging narratives and their impact on campus communities and academic freedom.


Yuri Leving is the chair of the Department of Russian Studies at Dalhousie University.


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