After years of reports that Jewish students don’t feel safe at York University because of anti-Zionist agitation on campus, and in the wake of a recent controversy over a mural in its student centre that some say promotes violence toward Israel, Mamdouh Shoukri, York’s president since 2007, spoke to The CJN to discuss some of the issues at play.
Is York University a safe space for Jewish students?
Yes, absolutely. York University is a safe place for Jewish students and, for that matter, for all students irrespective of their religion, ethnic background or political opinions.
We at York are committed to creating an environment where all people feel welcome, valued and safe. York has a deep and rich history of supporting inclusion and ensuring that all members of our community enjoy a safe and nurturing environment. This is clearly reflected in our stated principles, policies and procedures, and in our many pioneering programs to promote inclusion and campus safety. York University and I, in my capacity as president, will never tolerate acts of anti-Semitism or any form of discrimination directed at any group or member of our community.
The relationship between York University and the Jewish community is, in some sense, unique. For a number of historic reasons, York University was embraced by the Jewish community in its early years. York, in turn, embraced and reflected the needs of that community. This legacy is reflected today in the vibrant academic activities of our Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, our BA and MA programs in Jewish studies, the Jewish Teacher Education Program (one of a very few of its kind in North America), as well as in the engaged Jewish student organizations on campus such as Hillel. York also offers a number of services in support of Jewish life on campus.
The Jewish community has heard from some Jewish students and organizations that claim they feel unsafe at York. At the same time, other Jewish students and student groups maintain they feel safe on campus. How do you account for this discrepancy?
I understand some of the reasons for this discrepancy. As with all universities, there are students and faculty at York who support the Palestinian causes and who are critical of policies of the State of Israel. Some of this criticism is part of a legitimate political dialogue, while part of it can be seen by some as a cover for anti-Semitic sentiment.
While the university, using its best academic and legal resources, is in a good position to protect and support academic freedom and freedom of expression, and to draw the line when it comes to hate or other forms of discrimination or intimidation, the emotional aspects of an issue may affect some students and can make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This is understandable, as many of our students are the first in their families to attend university, and for others this may be the first time they have experienced the diversity of opinions that is typical of a vibrant academic environment.
I should add that the mostly unfair targeting of York by several Jewish organizations and individuals – perhaps in their zeal to combat anti-Semitism, which I can understand – has had a negative effect on some of our young students and has contributed to making them feel worried and victimized.
That said, the university has a responsibility – and indeed, is actively committed – to working with those who feel unsafe to ensure their positive engagement and to support fully their transition into the academic environment. At the same time, the university should stand firm on any attempt to intimidate our students or to advocate hate.
Toronto businessman Paul Bronfman made waves recently when he announced he would pull his funding from York over the controversial mural in the student centre. What is your view on that decision? Are you concerned that other Jewish donors may follow suit?
I regret Mr. Bronfman’s decision to withdraw the in-kind support his company provided to a few students in our Film Studies program. However, such decisions cannot affect the policies and procedures of a university. We remain grateful to our donors and supporters. We are not concerned nor do we see any evidence that our major donors are less willing to continue their support for York.
In your mind, should there be any limits on discussions about Israel and the Palestinians on campus? Or should a university campus be open to all ideas, even if they may make some people uncomfortable?
Academic freedom and freedom of speech are central to the mission of any university. In principle, these freedoms should always be protected, within the limitations of the law. As such, advocating hate or violence, which is a violation of the law, cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. It is my strong view, however, that while acting within the limits of the law, vigorous yet respectful dialogue and exchange of ideas can be deeply enriching to the academic life of an institution.
I believe it is the responsibility of those with strong views on any debate to act in a way that does not demonize and threaten others or make others feel unsafe.
The university has a responsibility to promote and encourage this approach.
In Canada and in the United States, there has been broad discussion around what is often depicted as a struggle between the right to free speech on university campuses and the need to strengthen our efforts toward diversity and inclusion. It is important to recognize that these goals are not at odds. Free speech, diversity and inclusion are all efforts to reach the same objective. We need to be talking constructively and openly about all challenges to safe and inclusive environments, for all individuals and groups, whether those barriers are racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of discrimination or intimidation.
Indeed, the balance between freedom of expression and ensuring that all members of a community feel safe in sharing their views without intimidation is a subject worthy of discussion in a collegial environment.
These are the principles that should guide our approach to the debate about Israel and Palestine on campus. We have zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or other forms of racism, or the advocacy of hate and violence by any group or individual. We work very hard with all sides to promote constructive dialogue and debate. There are some successes, such as the work by the Mosaic Institute and the highly successful academic teachings by individuals such as Prof. Saeed Rahnema.
In addition, an even-handed approach to the implementation of our policies has been instrumental in enhancing students’ life on campus. However, it is understandable that there will be individuals who may feel challenged by some ideas. While the university community has a responsibility to acknowledge and address these concerns, I believe the experience of open dialogue and constructive discussion will help all to understand the nature of the university environment and to allow their own thoughts and arguments to evolve.
What is your take on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and more specifically, on the efforts to promote BDS among York student government and faculty?
York University uses best practices in developing its policy on investment. These practices are built on advice from major investment consulting firms and require investment managers to take into consideration environmental, social and governance factors in their investment decisions. It does not recommend the use of “negative screening” or divesting from particular companies. This approach is considered best practice by international standards. So, at this moment, our policies, as approved by York’s board of governors, do not support BDS or divestment.
Obviously, any community group has the right to request a policy change. In this regard, York University also has a clear policy and procedure to be followed by any group seeking policy changes. Some time ago, we established the York University advisory committee on responsible investing (YUACRI). This advisory committee comprises students, faculty and staff who meet for the purposes of investigating, producing and providing advice to the university that is constructive and feasible, and making any recommended enhancements to the responsible investing process. YUACRI has a process for members of the York community to bring forward recommendations with respect to the management of endowment investments. Ultimately, the board has the authority to make any changes.
What might the Jewish community do to lower the temperature of conversation surrounding York?
The tenor of conversation surrounding York is upsetting our entire York community. It is important that we work together in understanding and promoting the important role that universities play in seeking solutions for the challenges that are facing the world through informed opinions and respectful exchange. I hope that future students from the Jewish community might hear more about the incredible opportunity to join a vibrant Jewish academic and community life, and to be exposed to the full richness of diversity that York offers.
I also hope that some of the external organizations in their advocacy and promotion to protect the Jewish people, who suffered greatly in the past, will review their approach and appreciate the inadvertent damage they may cause to the future of our students and to what we hope will continue to be a positive relationship.
What sort of relationships does York have with Israeli universities and institutions?
York University enjoys relationships with a number of Israeli universities and institutions, including Bar-Ilan University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and Arava Institute of Environmental Studies. In addition to providing opportunities for research and faculty collaborations, signed agreements with these institutions have generated student exchange activity. Our Centre for Jewish Studies continues to be involved in and to support various forms of scholarly exchange.
The mural controversy: in your view, how has York managed this situation? Is there anything you could have done differently?
The controversy surrounding the mural is part of this broader conversation and suggests we have an opportunity to further foster an inclusive environment for all members of our very diverse community.
I believe it is the right of all students, professors, and in fact all Canadians, to express their opinions and to join together to advocate for changes they believe will improve the university and society in general. I believe, just as strongly, that an intelligent discussion requires that both sides listen, which is why we are reviewing our policies to promote that goal.
In terms of the mural, it is clear that the subject of the artwork is offensive to some individuals and groups, particularly some Jewish members of our community. I understand and respect these concerns. York University has requested and confirmed that the executive of the Student Centre, which is a separate and distinct legal entity from the university, will establish procedures for hearing and resolving complaints from students about their shared space.
The considered advice we received assures me that displaying the painting in question is not illegal, and as such I accept the right of the artist to share his political position using it. However, I would like to see Student Centre consider replacing it, not because it is illegal, but rather as a way to create an opportunity to explore a better framework for dialogue.
There has been some controversy over the makeup of York’s new inclusion committee. Some people have complained that the committee features many anti-Israel and pro-BDS voices. What is your response to them? And how, in your mind, will the committee overcome the previously stated views of its members?
Inclusion is a broad campus issue, and therefore the membership of the President’s Advisory Committee on Inclusion needs to reflect that breadth, and consider and provide advice on approaches to promoting inclusion broadly in order to ensure a safe campus environment for all. I have heard concerns from Jewish members of our community and was also aware of other student and faculty groups who have expressed the need for a greater focus on inclusion on campus.
To be clear, this committee was not formed as a result of any specific incident, but rather to bring together York scholars to advance our shared goals of strengthening York’s commitment to building an inclusive and diverse campus through collegial dialogue that nurtures the respectful exchanges of ideas, and supports and prepares our graduates for success anywhere. The committee is an advisory body, not a decision-making body, whose mandate is to ensure that all voices are heard. Most certainly, the committee would not consider the BDS question, nor will it make recommendations to the board.
Let me reiterate that while concerns raised by some of our members regarding the mural contributed to my decision to establish an advisory committee on inclusion, the committee’s focus will be on strengthening inclusivity for all members of York’s vibrant and diverse community.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.