I have many fond memories from my time as an undergraduate at McGill University in the early 1990s: Montreal bagels paired with a thick slab of cream cheese sold in the halls of the Leacock Building to raise funds for clubs and societies; repertoire movies at the Cinematheque; Shabbat dinners with boxed red wine; and discussion about Israel-Palestine.
As a Middle East studies major and co-president of the Progressive Zionist Caucus, I became enamoured with essays by cultural Zionists such as Achad Ha’am, cut my teeth on analytical articles about Zionism being an “erotic revolution” by historians such as David Biale, and wrote essays critiquing the political philosophy of Benjamin Netanyahu’s book A Place Among the Nations. Along with a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, I helped edit the Middle East studies journal and published my own work about Israeli politics in the McGill Journal of Political Science. My friends and I used to enjoy discussing kibbutz socialism, whether Jewish nationalism was immune to nationalism’s worst failings, and whether the Oslo process represented a Palestinian Versailles, as Edward Said claimed.
But now the McGill campus community has lost an important forum for debating these important issues with the announcement by the McGill Daily that it will no longer publish articles that promote a “Zionist worldview, or any other ideology which we [the editorial board members] consider to be oppressive.” The intellectual culture at McGill is poorer for it.
As a campus newspaper of record, the Daily should be doing its utmost to promote free and open discourse. Short of hate speech (which is barred by Canadian law in any case), any political ideology or governing philosophy should be allowed space in a campus paper. The editorial board, of course, is free to take any political position it chooses: it may choose to write only anti-Zionist editorials if it wishes. That is legitimate. But by its nature, op-ed space – columns and articles by regular opinion writers or guest voices – should be delineated by openness and breadth. Anything less means the impairment of the free intellectual and political sphere that a campus is meant to promote.
More than two decades after encountering Biale’s insights on the history of Zionism in my undergraduate courses, he and I – along with nearly 100 other scholars – sit on the academic council of Open Hillel. The council was founded in 2015 to support the student-led, grassroots movement of Open Hillel, which was formed to challenge Hillel International’s standards of partnership. These rules, or “standards,” effectively bar non-Zionist and anti-Zionist perspectives from being aired at Hillel events. Just as Open Hillel criticizes Hillel for foreclosing robust and open debate within its tent, so has Open Hillel’s academic council issued a formal statement rebuking the McGill Daily for its no-Zionism policy.
Do some of us see Zionism as oppressive and as a form of ethnic supremacy? Certainly. Do others think Zionism can be liberated from the chains of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history? Probably. And there are still others on our council who no doubt see Zionism as intrinsically no better or no worse than any other form of nationalism.
While opinions around Zionism vary widely across our council – and they probably vary even more widely among the students Hillel seeks to serve, which is to say all Jewish students – Open Hillel is united around the core value of promoting inclusion and open debate. These are the values we believe should govern the campus community. These are the values that probably led most of us to become scholars in the first place. The McGill Daily’s policy of foreclosing debate by barring one set of voices may be nodding in the direction of anti-oppression, but it’s ultimately undermining the principles of intellectual exchange and political debate. These are values that should govern any healthy campus.