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Thursday, October 23, 2014

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What my first picketers taught me about learning

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McGill University has been my academic home for two decades. I have taught thousands of students, always encouraging them to ask, challenge, learn and think independently. I frequently echo a friend of mine who would grandly welcome me into his home saying, “He who is shy does not eat” by saying, “He – or she – who is shy does not learn.” I love the classroom’s openness, the luxury we students and professors have to explore intellectually together. I relish every class I have taught as a learning journey, trying to break down the artificial barriers we all erect that stop us from thinking, stretching and growing.

Given that love of the learning process, I was surprised last month when I appeared at the McGill bookstore for a lunchtime lecture to launch my new book. For the first time in my McGill career – despite having taken controversial positions over those years – I was picketed. My crime, of course, was being a Zionist and writing a book about Zionism –Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism. As I and others who came to the lecture ascended the third-floor staircase, two or three protesters presented us with an anti-Zionist handout, emphasizing that they were Jewish and anti-Zionist.

Most people attending the lecture ignored the protesters, who hold weekly anti-Zionist vigils. It’s important to emphasize that there were 15 to 20 times more attendees than protesters. One student, Yonah Diamond, who was a Shalom Hartman Institute summer intern with me last summer, spoke to the protesters, respectfully. A Jewish studies and political science major from Toronto, Diamond challenged an “End Zionism” sign they had brandished a week earlier. He asked: “Don’t you see the hypocrisy in advocating on behalf of one people’s rights [the Palestinians’] while simultaneously denying that self-determination to another people?”

Diamond quickly realized “they were completely OK with this hypocrisy, because they simply accepted stereotypical accusations, which they claimed to be historically accurate,” taking refuge in the usual anti-Zionist buzzwords: “colonialist, ethnic cleansing, racist, apartheid.” Their discussion about a two-state solution was particularly appalling. “They thought the idea of partition or two states was racist,” he reports, which suggested to him that “they’re not living in reality… they truly believe the lies and stereotypes.”

During the question period following my lecture, one protester, wearing anti-Zionist slogans on his ski jacket, took something I said out of context to accuse me of being “racist.” He lacked the discipline or the integrity to ask a question. He had not come to learn, only to posture. Although I had told the bookstore officials I did not object to the students leafleting inside the warm store rather than outside in the frigid cold – because I believe in academic freedom – his approach, which reflected no interest in learning, offended me – and I told him so. He walked away angrily.

Another protester asked a reasonable question. After comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa – a premise I refuted by noting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national not racial conflict – he asked what criticisms I had of Israel. This question gave me an opportunity to celebrate Israeli democracy, and demonstrate that I, like others, have many concerns regarding the peace process, the growing gap between rich and poor and the role of the ultra-Orthodox. But, I pointed out, whatever criticisms I have, I don’t reject the state. I don’t demonize a country because, like all countries, it’s imperfect.

In truth, the other questions I fielded were better, fuller, richer, more illuminating about my talk – and more to the point. They were asked by people who came to learn, not to score points, and they pushed me to refine some ideas while inviting me to emphasize others.

Diamond believes, that, ironically, the protesters, “proved the importance of [my] message. The way they unthinkingly accused Israel of all these modern evils emptied these terms of any meaning. This ignorance filled the halls of the UN General Assembly in 1975 and continues to poison the minds of my fellow students. [Former American UN ambassador] Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught us that words and ideas have far-reaching consequences, and this couldn’t have become clearer to me that day.”

Students such as Yonah – some of whom, like him, become friends – make teaching at McGill a privilege. Not because he agrees with me, but because he comes to learn, and therefore does.

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