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November 11, 2009

Freedom to Teach, Freedom of Speech: Israel-Palestine

Dr. Jason Kunin

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Jeffery Simpson, columnist for The Globe and Mail, once neatly summed up the problem faced by Israel's public relations managers in the West.

Dr. Jason KuninJeffery Simpson, columnist for The Globe and Mail, once neatly summed up the problem faced by Israel's public relations managers in the West. He noted that the more people learned about the Israel-Palestine conflict, the more they tended to side with the Palestinians.

No surprise, then, that for Zionists, the key to shoring up Israel's image - tarnished in recent years by its murderous bombing of civilians in Lebanon and Gaza - is to prevent people from learning too much.

Indeed, in recent months, Zionist organizations in North America have been stepping up pressure on schools and universities to monitor and curtail all teaching, learning, and organizing around Israel-Palestine.

It is out of this context of repression that a group of Toronto-based teachers, professors and university students - a group that included myself - put together a day-and-a-half long conference at Steelworkers' Hall, entitled “Freedom to Teach, Freedom of Speech: Israel-Palestine.”

The event was co-organized by Educators for Peace and Justice, Faculty4Palestine, and Students Against Israeli Apartheid.

The conference was born out of two things that happened earlier this year: the Israeli bombing of Gaza, and the intensified repression by school board and university officials of all discussion, fundraising, and organizing around Gaza and Palestine in the months that followed. This is a repression that has been directed from the highest levels.

As revealed last spring in an article by Liisa Schofield - "Exposed: University of Toronto Suppresses Pro-Palestinian Activism" - the president of University of Toronto, David Naylor, personally intervened to block the event "Standing Against Israeli Apartheid" in October 2008. When that happens, you know that university officials have deemed it a priority to squash Palestine solidarity events.

The purpose of the conference was two-fold: to map the problem of repression across the education sectors - to find its commonalities and patterns - and to strategize ways of combating it.  To that end, educators and students from both the secondary and post-secondary sectors were invited to give presentations and workshops.

The Friday night event opened with Golta Shahidi, a graduate student at York University and a member of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA).

Shahidi talked about the obstacles students faced this past spring in organizing the annual Israeli Apartheid Week. Though the repression of Israeli Apartheid Week events on university campuses is nothing new - in 2008, McMaster's University actually tried to ban the use of the words "Israeli apartheid" - it reached an intensified level this year, with organizers finding themselves unable to book rooms and being charged prohibitive "security" costs.

At York University, student organizers faced discipline and fines of over $1000. Israeli Apartheid Week posters were banned at Carleton, Ottawa U, Trent, and Wilfred Laurier University.

Directives banning the posters often invoked the language of equity and human rights in ways that were really quite bizarre. Carleton University, for example, issued a statement --- and this should get some marks for creativity - that while the Israeli Apartheid Week posters were not themselves in violation of any human rights protocols, they were being banned anyway just in case they provoked others to violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Lynda Lemberg, a retired teacher and conference organizer, read a prepared statement by Javier Davila, a teacher at Parkdale Collegiate Institute, about his successful efforts to get the Toronto District School Board's Human Rights Department to issue a series of system recommendations that recognize the legitimacy of criticism of Israel - including the use of the word "apartheid" - and to distinguish such criticism from anti-Semitism, racial harassment, and the promotion of hatred.

Adnan Husain, a professor of Medieval Islamic history at Queen's University, examined the way notions about "expertise" that get applied to scholars in almost every field fail to apply to the subject of Israel-Palestine, where the assumption is that there are no "experts" but merely entrenched positions and propaganda.

Husain commented wryly that no one at Queens wants to teach the course on modern Middle East conflict because it is the one area where the more you put yourself forward as an expert, the more your legitimacy as a scholar comes under attack. The situation, he noted, has left among the ranks of experts who make themselves available for public commentary a vacuum that is usually filled by shallow commentators with less regard for the usual rigors of scholarship.

Mazen Masri, a PhD student at Osgoode Law School, talked about the difficulties of organizing the conference "Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood" at York University last June. The conference, vilified in the mainstream media as a "hatefest," encountered unprecedented interference from Ottawa when the Conservative cabinet Minister Gary Goodyear moved to review the event's SSHRC funding.

Georgia Luyt, an organizer with SAIA, read a prepared statement by Nisreen Mansour, a Palestinian-born high school student in Ottawa who was expelled last year from her school as a result of allegations that she had defaced an Israeli flag that the principal had hung in the school as part of a program called "Teaching Tolerance," which he had brought back from a workshop run by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The ripping of the flag, which Mansour denies doing, was reported as a hate crime.  Though Mansour had been asked to write about this experience, she chose instead to write about living under occupation in Palestine. It was a powerful and disturbing testimonial that reminded us all of what we were fighting to teach and learn about.

The night ended with a lively talk, interspersed with song and poetry, by Saed Abu-Hijleh, a Palestinian poet, radio show host, peace activist, and professor of human geography who spent the first half of his talk recounting the story of his four-hour detainment and harassment by Canadian immigration officials at the airport upon his arrival in Canada just a few days earlier.

As the organizer of the event who had personally issued the invitation for him to speak, I was contacted by a security official upon his arrival in Toronto and asked if Professor Abu-Hijleh's talk was going to be "political" and if he was going to be "preaching one side against another."

In the context of recent arrests of Palestinians while travelling abroad - the panel, in fact, had been preceded by a short video of Mohammad Othman, the Palestinian human rights activist who was arrested without charges on his way back from Norway - Professor Abu-Hijleh's experience at the Canadian airport was a frightening reminder of the reach of Zionist repression.

The Saturday morning portion of the conference opened with two keynote speakers, Yafa Jarrar and Sherene Razack.

Jarrar is a Palestinian-born student activist who warned about the perils of reducing the politics of Israel-Palestine to a politics of identity. Efforts to frame it as a "Jewish-Muslim" conflict - and approach it through initiatives that focused on Jewish-Muslim cooperation - were, she said, a distraction that prevented us from talking about the real issues, which are about dispossession, oppression, and violence.

Sherene Razack, a professor at OISE and a pioneering scholar of race and the law, argued that the repression of teaching, learning, and discussion of Israel-Palestine needs to be understood not as a feature of creeping fascism, and civil libertarians tend to argue, but of racism.

It is not only fascist states, she noted, that circumscribe the use of language, and that delegitimizing the language you can use to describe racist oppression - "apartheid," for example - is a standard method of "casting out" people, not only from the law, to which you cannot make appeal, but from the whole discourse of "civilization" itself.

The Friday night panellists and Saturday keynote speakers provided a framework for discussion that participants could refer to in the sector workshops that followed.

Two legal experts from the Law Union of Ontario's Movement Defence Committee, Irina Ceric and Yukata Dirks, provided information to help navigate the legal terrain of schools and universities when teaching or organizing around Israel-Palestine.

Obviously, the conference did not - could not - produce any pat solutions to the challenges of countering repression around the teaching, learning and organizing around Israel-Palestine.

Rather, this was part of an on-going conversation that continues to takes place throughout a series of overlapping events and campaigns, particularly the Freedom of Expression campaign that was launched earlier this year by various Palestine solidarity groups.

Educators tend to work in isolation, shut up in their classrooms and dispersed in different schools and institutions.

At the post-secondary level, a culture of competition - for grants, for scare tenure positions - often prohibits dialogue and collaboration.  Those who engage in Palestine solidarity work can often feel disempowered and alone at their separate schools and campuses.

The conference, by bringing these educators together, was simply one of a series of interventions to lift us out of our isolation and to provide for us a sense of solidarity, support, and knowledge with which to resist the forces that seek to curtail our ability to teach and learn what the Israel Foreign Ministry prefers we not know.

Dr. Jason Kunin is a Toronto high school teacher and writer.

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