Letter from Prof. J.Cohen to the Administration December 2010.
For the past six years, Israel Apartheid Week, held annually in March, has been a contentious event on the York campus. It has led to serious divisions among students – and, though perhaps less apparent, among staff and faculty as well. There have been cases of verbal and even physical assaults on Jews. It has also generated negative media exposure. As contract faculty at York University, I have heard many students voice concerns about this week-long annual event. One of the main arguments that I hear is that the name ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ singles out one country for heavy and, indeed, one-sided criticism: this, students say (and I agree) is, among other things, contrary to the entire spirit of academic enquiry which should characterize a university. I have had several Jewish students who feel unsafe on campus, but in fact both Jewish and non-Jewish students have expressed these concerns to me, as have some of my colleagues and some graduate students.
It is imperative for the York Administration to ensure that the many and very complex aspects of the Middle East situation are equally and fairly represented (if, indeed, they must be an issue on campus altogether.) The very word ‘Apartheid’ is both emotionally charged and presumptive. MPP Peter Shurman, who tabled a motion in March 2010 to condemn Israel Apartheid Week in Ontario, argued that the use of the term “apartheid” in relation to Israel bordered on hate speech and offended those who had experienced apartheid in South Africa. Ontario MPPs of all political stripes banded together to condemn “Israeli Apartheid Week.” Whether one agrees with this assessment or not (I do), much of the discourse about the situation in the Middle East which I have heard and read on campus, and particularly among members of my own union local on campus, comes very dangerously close to being hate speech, and certainly does not exemplify academic aspirations to objectivity.
I am writing in support of an initiative which has recently been brought to my attention: it proposes thatrespectfuldebate about the Middle East would be much more constructive than “Israeli Apartheid Week” (again, if the campus really must be involved in such activities). “IAW” does not lead to dialogue: the name itself constitutes the imposition of one viewpoint, and many of the associated activities have led to its being called, not without at least some justification, a “hatefest.” (Certainly, I have seen many signs on campus such as “Zionism = Nazism” during IAW.) The initiative which has been brought to my attention is the suggestion of a constructive first step toward promoting helpful dialogue rather than encouraging and reinforcing hatred: changing the name to a more neutral one; for example, “Middle East Peace Week” and actively condemning the name ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ on the grounds that it is one sided and biased, and unfairly singles out students.