Last week's three-day York University-sponsored conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was met with three days of protests from concerned members of the Jewish community who feared the event would promote an anti-Israel agenda.
Students gathered at York University's Glendon campus on Monday to protest the York-sponsored conference called Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.
According to UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), when the latter organization assigned three people to attend Israel-Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and paths to Peace, their fears were confirmed.
"The conference devoted virtually no time to suggestions about an invigorated peace process and concentrated instead on Israel as a military machine determined to dominate the Palestinians," the organizations said in a joint statement.
"There was no discussion of terrorism or Israel's security needs and there were no speakers who presented an Israeli centre-left or centre-right perspective. The assumption that Zionism and Israeli society are based on violence and racism predominated.
"At one panel discussion, 'Zionists' were blamed as the cause of domestic violence perpetrated by Palestinian men against Palestinian women. At another, some participants questioned the sanity and integrity of an Israeli presenter. Speakers who defended Zionism were often jeered and heckled and virtually all of the publicly available material was anti-Israel."
B'nai Brith Canada called the conference "a blatant exercise in anti-Zionist propaganda," and other Jewish and Israel advocacy organizations – including the Jewish Defence League (JDL), StandWithUs, the Canadian Centre for Israel Activism (CCIA), Hasbara Fellowships and Hasbara at York – held protests at the entrance of York's Glendon campus at Lawrence and Bayview avenues, where the conference was held between June 22 and 24.
JDL's national director Meir Weinstein said on June 22, at the peak, about 125 people gathered for the protest and on the 23rd and 24th, the protests drew smaller crowds.
In a release distributed by UJA Federation, CIJA and Hillel of Greater Toronto, Daniel Ferman, Hillel's city-wide student-council chair, said the conference "is academically flawed and unbalanced.
"It's disappointing that a university which publicly supports 'reasoned discourse' would sanction a conference with so many speakers whose rhetoric falls far below this lofty goal," Ferman added.
In a June 18 address to York's senate, university president Mamdouh Shoukri said he understands that "the subject at the heart of the conference is one that many people find difficult, sensitive and very personal… All universities – not just York – must be dedicated to supporting reasoned discourse. They must be willing to accept dissent and deal with complex issues.
"These issues are discussed on a daily basis in all parts of the world, especially in the Middle East — including Israel. There is no reason why they should not be discussed at a university in Canada," Shoukri added.
In the weeks leading up to the conference, Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, called for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a federal agency, to review its $19,750 grant to the event, because initial grant proposals didn't detail speakers. He said some groups expressed "grave concerns" that some of the speakers had made anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments in the past.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers called for Goodyear's resignation for "unprecedented efforts to interfere" with the event.
Among the nearly 60 speakers, only a handful represented an Israeli narrative. Presenters included Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, a website that posts articles accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and labelling it an apartheid state.
The media were denied access to the conference. Bruce Ryder, one of the organizers, said he believed a no-media policy would "help promote a scholarly atmosphere conducive to reflective, academic dialogue," but he added that the lectures were recorded and would be available later on the conference website at www.yorku.ca/ipconf.
Despite the news blackout, The CJN interviewed two Israeli presenters about their personal views on the conflict and their impressions of the conference.
Professor and human rights lawyer David Kretzmer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said that although he used to believe that a two-state solution was the preferred way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has come to realize that it has become "more unlikely, unachievable and unviable."
He said Israel has reached a political impasse and that the answer may be a hybrid solution that incorporates aspects of both the one- and two-state solutions.
Kretzmer, who considers himself to be on the "Israeli liberal Zionist left" of the political spectrum, said that while he was impressed by the calibre of speakers at the event, he was discouraged by the rhetoric from the floor.
"I think there is a disparity between the speakers, who are of a very high quality and of a high academic standard, and the audience, some of whom have been very, very emotional, and I would say that generally, the rhetoric from the floor has been very, very critical of Israel, to say the least, and certainly unaccepting of any legitimate Israeli narrative," he said.
"I think the speakers themselves have been quite good, and some have been Palestinians, some are Israelis… I don't have anything against the balance of the speakers."
Kretzmer said that one of the lectures that affected him most was the address by University of Pennsylvania professor Ian Lustick, whose lecture, titled "Thinking the Unthinkable: Perhaps There is No Solution," forced him to consider his greatest fear.
"But it's a luxury for people from the outside to say that there is no solution… But those of us who live there are living the conflict itself, and we have to try to find ways out of the political impasse, and that is what we are doing," Kretzmer said.
He said he felt that the fears of Toronto's Jewish community were misconceived.
"The calls about the two-state solution not being viable are not restricted to the radical left or the Palestinians, they come from the centre in Israel and the right," he said.
"I don't see why Israeli Jews can ask these questions, but Canadian Jews suddenly feel that if you ask the questions and try to address them, suddenly, you are delegitimizing the state of Israel."
Meron Benevisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a self-proclaimed "radical leftist Israeli," said debates about Israel's future are masking the fact that "a durable bi-national state already exists in Israel and the West Bank for at least 20 years."
He said that his impressions of the conference is that it was a gathering of left-of-centre academics who are preaching to the converted.
Benevisti added that the demonstrations by the Jewish community are "ludicrous."
"To think about me coming to see my own national flag in a demonstration against myself – I, who was born and raised in Israel and has grandchildren in Israel – I have to feel that I'm a traitor?"
On the other hand, he said he understands the concerns the Jewish community has when it comes to scholars who push the idea that there should not be a Jewish state.
"There are some scholars and some speakers here who use the one-state solution as a disguise to delegitimize the Jewish collective in Israel… But there are others who believe that dialogue is necessary because… the present situation is unbearable," Benevisti said
"It is a complex issue, but complex issues should be debated with open minds and not with demonstrations."