Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) president and CEO Avi Benlolo says he’s fed up with universities that continue to allow “hateful speakers” on campus.
“I’ve lost my patience with the universities. I think they’re complicit in aiding and abetting these hate-mongers,” Benlolo said, reacting to a lecture presented by pro-Iranian, anti-Israel speaker Zafar Bangash on McMaster University’s campus last week.
The Jan. 26 lecture, titled “Iran in the Crosshairs,” was sponsored by the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War, Independent Jewish Voices, as well as the student groups Students for Justice in the Middle East, McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice, and Students Resisting War and Occupation.
Benlolo wrote a letter to McMaster president Patrick Deane that challenged him to take a stand against a speaker who was quoted during last summer’s Al Quds rally at Queen’s Park as saying, “This black man in the White House, Barack Obama… he would rather have Americans starve to death but he cannot say no to the Zionist parasitical state… That is what makes them racists, that is what makes them inhuman, that is what makes them barbarians.”
Bangash, president of the Islamic Society of York Region, who is known for advocating Iranian-style theocracy, has also said, “Inshallah [God-willing] I see that day when we, the Muslims, will march on Palestine and liberate Palestine… under Islamic law,” and has advised Israelis to go “back where they came from: the U.S., Canada, Europe, Russia, whoever is willing to take them in.”
Despite Benlolo’s complaints, McMaster chose not to cancel the lecture, citing its “important role in maintaining freedom of speech.”
McMaster spokesperson Gord Arbeau put the onus on the organizers of the event to ensure respectful dialogue on campus.
“Every event that is booked at McMaster follows the same protocols. Event organizers are responsible for ensuring a safe event and those protocols have been followed in this instance.”
But Benlolo, who sends letters of complaint to university presidents each time he learns that an anti-Israel speaker has been invited to speak on a Canadian campus, said he is becoming tired of getting the “brush-off” from university administrators who he says hide behind the “freedom of speech” excuse.
“We’re awaiting a response… I would expect the exact same response that I get from all the university presidents, which is what these universities hide behind. They say, ‘We have to allow for freedom of speech and freedom of debate and the truth will prevail.’”
Benlolo added that the trend of having anti-Israel speakers lecturing on campus is “becoming intolerable,” adding that “it’s about time that the universities step up and draw a red line in the sand and say that speakers who are divisive and to an extent, antisemitic, should not be permitted on campus. Period.”
McMaster’s Jewish Student Association president Ariela Rozenek and McMaster’s Israel on Campus president Jessica Lax-Vanek monitored the lecture.
Rozenek said that while Bangash mostly stayed on topic, there were “undertones of racism and bigotry” in his talk.
“I understand that McMaster wants to provide an environment that encourages discussion, that promotes freedom of speech, but the inflammatory language that was used by Bangash adds to a toxic, intolerant environment and stifles true dialogue.”
She added that the students who attended the lecture as representatives of the Jewish community are working toward an inclusive environment, and lectures like the one delivered by Bangash go against that goal.
“We really try to host events that elevate the level of discourse on campus and this sets us back.”
Benlolo said that if university presidents don’t want to cancel these types of events, they should at least take a moral stand.
“There’s a minimum and a maximum [response]. The minimum is that the president should denounce it, and the maximum is that the university property should not be made available for these speakers. It’s public property and the university can define the rules and should not permit hateful speakers on their campus.”