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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

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McGill-Hebrew U rights law program causes controversy

Tags: News Israel Canadian Jewish News Hebrew University Israel Jerusalem law McGill University Montreal
McGill University law professor René Provost, left, is a co-chair of the International Summer Program in Human Rights. Beside him, from left, are students Eloge Butera and Ornan Steinberg. [D. Guthrie photo]

MONTREAL — A new joint course of study offered by the law schools of McGill University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ), which has had to be defended against critics, will go ahead this summer.

Launched last year, the second edition of the International Summer Program in Human Rights will take place in Montreal Aug. 6 to 24 on the theme of Human Rights and Armed Conflicts.

Like the inaugural program held at HUJ, 10 McGill and 10 HUJ law students are being selected now by McGill’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and HUJ’s Minerva Center for Human Rights.

McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum defended the program last April after the McGill Daily called for severing ties to HUJ and derided any human rights venture with Israel. Munroe-Blum accused critics of “cowardice.”

The debate has since continued in the student press.

The program’s goal is to teach a different area of human rights law each year relevant enough to both countries to allow for comparison, supplemented by field trips that deepen the theoretical discussion. The faculty consists of three McGill and three HUJ professors, including program co-chairs Tomer Broude, Minerva’s academic director, and René Provost, founder and former director of the McGill centre.

Last year’s theme was Regulating Internal Diversity in multicultural societies. This year’s should be even more contentious.

Students will look at the application of international humanitarian and international human rights law during wartime. They will delve into the very different conflict experiences of Canada and Israel, which, the program description notes, was “born in war” and not been free of it since.

Israeli courts have ruled extensively on such issues as “targeted killings” and security measures under military occupation.

One of the rare Canadian cases to be studied is the unsuccessful 2009 attempt by Palestinians from the village of Bil’in to sue in a Quebec court a Quebec company building homes for Israeli settlers on disputed territory.

The students will meet people at the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (better known as Rights and Democracy), Quebec Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Supreme Court of Canada.

The program was created with private donations raised by the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, which honoured Munroe-Blum in 2010. It’s the first formal partnership between the two universities. The law program is also supported by the Quebec Ministry of International Relations and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The great majority of McGill participants in the Israel program in last summer found it a positive experience. A couple had criticisms, feeling more emphasis was placed on how Israel is coping with African refugees than on the indigenous Arab population.

In September, seven McGill participants signed a letter to the Daily disputing that the situation of Palestinians was ignored, noting that the itinerary included seeing how the security barrier cuts through Palestinian land and a meeting the NGO Al-Haq in Hebron on the West Bank.

“To suggest that there was an agenda to whitewash the conflict or minimize its impact is completely baseless,” the authors wrote. “While it may not have been the focus of the program, it came up during relevant discussion in a natural and organic way.”

As for HUJ, the students found it to be “a hub of academic freedom characterized by a plurality of critical voices.”

Farid Muttalib, one of the seven, commented elsewhere: “We spent a lot of time in class engaged in sometimes very theoretical discussions. But then we would spend the equivalent time outside the classroom, visiting the Israeli Supreme Court, local NGOs or different communities,” including the Jewish-Palestinian village of Neve Shalom.

“I arrived knowing little about this country and left with a deeper understanding of the complexity of having a democratic and Jewish state in the middle of the Middle East,” said Emilie Ouellet-Décoste.

 “The program helped restore my faith in the indomitable human spirit in the face of so many challenges and adversity, so many people we met on this journey did not despair,” said Eloge Butera, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The response of the Israelis was also commendatory. HUJ student Itai Tsiddon commented that it “left me with a strong impression that there is much to be learned from Canada.”

His classmate Daniella Zlotnik said the program “helped me to see my country, my politics and my legal point of view in a new light. It made me, at times, question my beliefs and, in other times, justify them completely.”

Provost told The CJN it is hoped the program continues for at least six years, alternating between Jerusalem and Montreal.

“The academic boycott of Israel is an utter mistake, even for those who are opposed to Israel’s policies… The university, necessarily, must be a forum and marketplace for ideas. It’s critical to have more academic exchanges with Israel, a country where there is enormous freedom of expression, and that’s especially true for McGill, which has a global mission.”

He said he is confident the program exposes students to a broad range of opinion on “an extraordinarily complicated situation,” which the media often over-simplify and the public misunderstands.

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