McGill [University]'s administration, unlike that of many other universities, has not bowed to politically motivated cancel culture. It has taken a moderate and balanced position, stating explicitly that academic freedom must be respected, and that differences of opinion are not grounds for disciplinary actions.
The latest open letter, signed by no fewer than 27 student groups and one staff group, as well as many individual students and faculty members, demands that McGill boycott all Israeli educational institutions and all companies which deal with Israel. The letter also demands that any and every statement deemed to be pro-Israel be banned from the university:
We believe in and fight for the rights of students to feel safe and condemn the McGill administration for not intervening in the spread of hate speech relating to the expansion of the Israeli settler-colonial project, the expulsion of Palestinians, and the violence against innocent civilians. We demand that McGill fulfill their mandate of ensuring a safe, non-racist, non-discriminatory environment by condemning Zionist speech on campus.
The letter further demands that McGill define "Zionism ideologies and speech as racism," and thereby as violations of the university's policy on discrimination. And, just in case the point has not been made sufficiently clear, the letter declares that
We demand that McGill recognize any speech that advocates for the expansion of a settler-colonial state, for the expulsion of native peoples from their homes, and for the use of violence against unarmed civilians as hate speech. Any student group or student who espouses these ideologies should be held accountable by the University for their violent, hateful, and harmful speech.
Note that the letter does not offer to debate the Israel-Palestine issue, or to provide evidence and arguments to support the authors' case. No, it simply demands that any political position but its own be regarded as hate speech and banned from campus. This letter follows the long-standing policy of the McGill Daily newspaper to refuse any article or letter it deems to be pro-Israel. It also follows the long-standing policy of the Students' Society to block the election of pro-Israel students and to eject those who were elected. The informal motto of the Students' Society is "punch a Zionist today."
McGill's response is, once again, moderate and balanced. Here it invokes "equity and inclusion," not to suppress academic freedom but to justify it:
The petition's demands are in fact wholly antithetical to our commitment to equity and inclusion. They purport to draw on our commitment to equity and inclusion to call for measures that would divide our community, notably by demanding that we exclude some worldviews and ways of self-identifying from our campus. We cannot, indeed we will not, allow the misuse of our EDI-based [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion] plans and policies to sow strife at McGill. While each of us enjoys the right to hold and express our own political views, the University will not respond to calls that would threaten to undermine our obligation to uphold a safe, respectful and inclusive campus for all.
The critical phrase for academic freedom is "each of us enjoys the right to hold and express our own political views." ... The health of the university community, its very existence as an academic institution, is under threat by ideological partisans. Either academic freedom will be defended, or the university will become a political cult in which nothing but approved ideological truths may be spoken. University administrators have the responsibility and the power; let us hope that they have the will to defend academic freedom.
Philip Carl Salzman, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is an emeritus professor of anthropology at McGill University, a senior fellow at Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.