An Israel-Palestine conference held at York University in June has sparked a second inquiry. The conference raised controversy when science and technology minister Gary Goodyear had the research council funding the conference to review the event’s grant.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers has launched an inquiry into whether academic freedom was violated in the course of the conference, “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace,” which took place from June 22 to 24. The announcement comes after York started its own independent review.
Among other topics, the conference examined the issue of a one-state versus a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It drew scholars from around the world, including Switzerland, Italy, Israel, and Palestinian territories. Among those who drew the ire of Jewish groups was Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel. The head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Bernie Farber, said it was obvious some speakers advocated eliminating the Jewish state.
Goodyear said he received hundreds of emails complaining about speakers. “There was the addition of speakers who are known to have an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic stands [sic]: is that still an academic forum? Or has it changed into something entirely different, something that would not quality [sic] for funding?” he told the Waterloo Record.
At his behest, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council decided to look at whether the conference has made major changes since November 2008, when its funding application was submitted. The SSHRC eventually accepted that the conference followed required provisions and that changes in programming were minor.
Academics and conference organizers cried foul over the review, calling it an infringement on academic freedom and demanding Goodyear’s resignation.
“[The] politically motivated campaign to restrict academic inquiry regarding Israel does pose a significant threat to intellectual freedom,” said Bruce Ryder, assistant dean at Osgoode law school and one of the conference organizers.
Organizers say that as long as a research activity does not violate Canadian law, no agency should be able to assess, monitor, or discipline competent professors, whether it’s the government or the university administration.
Asaf Zohar, a Trent University professor and the new chair of the Canadian Academics for Peace in the Middle East, shares CAUT’s concern for academic freedom. But he disagrees with CAUT’s stance on the York conference, saying that academic freedom is also based on whether or not the participants and attendees can feel safe in discussing controversial issues.
Jon Thompson, a professor at the University of New Brunswick, will lead CAUT’s inquiry. Thompson is asking for submissions on the academic community’s responsibility to protect individuals’ right to discuss controversial issues. Submissions will be accepted from any interested parties, including administrators of sponsoring universities, conference organizers, participants, and students.
The York review will be headed by Frank Iacobucci, a former Supreme Court judge and former York president. York’s review will look at the planning and organization phases, as well as the responsibilities of faculty members and university administrators in conferences on controversial topics.
Both the CAUT and York inquiries are expected to complete their work in November.