The news that a Canadian professor presented a paper at a conference of Holocaust skeptics in Iran has sent "shock and regret" throughout his university, the president of St. Francis Xavier University said Wednesday.
In an interview with the CBC, Sean Riley distanced the school from the climate of anti-Semitism at the conference in Iran, stressing that "anti-Semitism in particular is so abhorrent to what the university stands for."
Shiraz Dossa, a political science lecturer at St. Francis Xavier, was the lone Canadian at a two-day event in Tehran that attracted some of the world's most notorious Holocaust deniers, including neo-Nazis and a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
The conference that ended Tuesday was the brainchild of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has previously called for the state of Israel to be wiped out and called the Holocaust a "myth."
The university was given no advance notice of Dossa's plans to attend the Tehran conference, Riley said, and "there's been a real sense of shock and regret that the university's name should be associated in any way with the conference in Tehran."
Riley said Wednesday that media reports about Dossa's presence at the event touched off questions from parents, alumni and students about whether St. Francis Xavier was now "tolerating anti-Semitism in teaching in the framework of the university."
He noted that in a Canadian democracy, it was up to Dossa to make the decision about whether to go to the event, because "our faculty members have the freedom of inquiry."
"But at the same time, we have fundamental values that we espouse, and respect for human dignity and human rights is in accordance to that," Riley said.
John Goldberg of the Atlantic Jewish Council said he was shocked to hear that a professor from St. Francis Xavier was going to a conference questioning the Holocaust.
"I'm wondering what this professor's teaching back home in Canada, what's he teaching in Nova Scotia," he said.
'Not a normal academic conference'
In an interview with the Globe and Mail published Wednesday, Dossa said he did not realize beforehand he would be part of an exercise in anti-Semitism, and repeatedly stated his belief that the genocide of six million Jews during the Second World War is a historical fact. Dossa called anyone who disputes the slaughter of Jews during the Second World War a "lunatic."
In the interview, he defended the paper he read at the conference as an essay "about the war on terrorism, and how the Holocaust plays into it." He said the Jewish loss at the hands of the Nazis was used as "a political construct" to "justify certain policies by people, some of whom are Zionists. And now that whole issue plays into the war on terrorism, which is essentially a war on Islam."
Riley said that professors attend conferences all the time, but the political climate in Iran should have suggested to Dossa that perhaps "this was not a normal academic conference."
Dossa, a Canadian citizen who was born in Uganda, said he accepted the invitation to speak in Iran, which included payment of travel expenses, partly because he was attracted by the prospect of seeing his ancestral land. Dossa has Iranian roots on one side of his family.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said he was troubled that any academic would attend the conference.
"Particularly if in fact this individual saw the list of attendees and saw that the subject matter was going to touch upon Holocaust denial or anything else that takes on such a provocative and inflammatory tone," he said.
MacKay said he didn't know anything about Dossa's presentation or what transpired at the conference.
"Giving him the benefit of the doubt, at the very least I would suggest that academics, anyone going there that has any representation of Canada or a Canadian university, owes a bare minimum to inform themselves of the subject matter for discussion."