TORONTO — The Jewish Defence League said it plans to hold weekly demonstrations at York University to protest an upcoming two-day conference called Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.
The June 22-24 conference, co-sponsored by Queen’s University and York, and an official part of York’s 50th anniversary celebrations, will “explore which state model would be the best to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, respecting the rights to self-determination of both Israelis/Jews and Palestinians,” the event’s website said.
Critics of the conference are worried that while it’s being promoted as a dialogue on which solution would be best to achieve peace in the region, the speakers – some of whom are active in the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel – will present the one-state solution as the only viable option.
The website for the conference also says that “despite the current diplomatic focus on the two-state model… the conference seeks to systematically measure the two-state model against the promise of alternatives; very specifically the potential in the model of a single bi-national state.”
Among the 49 confirmed speakers are Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian BDS campaign against Israel, and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, a website that posts articles that accuse Israel of ethnic cleaning and labels Israel as an apartheid state.
There are also a number of Jewish speakers, but some, such as Jeff Halper, a member of an organization that “resists the Israeli occupation on the ground,” and Michael Mandel, who recently published an article in Shunpiking magazine that said Israel deliberately kills “civilians for illegal political ends,” share a very critical view of the Jewish state.
Meir Weinstein, the JDL’s national director, said that the few people who have agreed to lend a “legitimate voice” to the conference should withdraw so as not to lend credibility to a one-sided event.
He said that as of this week, his group will be picketing every week on the sidewalk in front of York’s Vari Hall rotunda.
Ed Morgan, a University of Toronto law professor and former Canadian Jewish Congress president, said he considered taking part in the conference, but backed out when he learned that it would mostly promote the view that a one-state solution is the only viable option.
In October, in an op-ed piece in The CJN, he wrote that “the notion of ‘one state’ is deployed by Israel’s enemies as a rhetorical tactic to undermine the Jewish state.”
Morgan thought it would be appropriate to “fight the fight from the inside” because the “core group that thought up the conference are perfectly good scholars at Osgoode Hall and Queen’s University who hold a genuine interest in debating alternative forms of democracy in the Israeli and Palestinian context.
“But the guests are starting to outnumber the hosts, and the cynical edge of the ‘one-state’ crowd is showing as the proposed speakers start to bare their anti-Israel teeth,” Morgan added.
In a statement on behalf of the organizing committee, conference organizers Sharry Aiken and Bruce Ryder said that “a topic as fraught and weighty as the future of Israel/Palestine,” will cause everyone to “disagree passionately with at least some of the speakers.”
But Aiken and Ryder said they’ve chosen speakers with the assistance of an international advisory committee, “based on the strength of their academic achievements and the scholarly quality of the paper proposals they submitted.”
In response to the concern about the inclusion of BDS activists in the conference, Aiken and Ryder said the papers submitted “contribute to scholarly debates about the models of statehood that offer promising paths to peace, respecting the human rights and security interests of all peoples.
“We did not consider it appropriate, in an academic context, to undertake an assessment of the political opinions or political activities of the scholars who submitted paper proposals to us.”
York spokesperson Richard Fisher said it’s too early to characterize the conference as being one-sided, because the list of speakers and the format hasn’t been fully developed.
“The organizers have no agenda on this issue one way or the other, except of course for exploring paths to peace….There is no attempt to promote one solution or the other,” Fisher said.
Responding to the inclusion of speakers who support the BDS campaign, he added that “to say that a debate should not take place unless it supports our pre-disposed view on either side, we deny the very essence of academic freedom and we kill the very thing we are trying to protect.”
In related news, Weinstein attended a board of governors meeting at York on April 27 to deliver a petition with about 2,800 signatures to York president Mamdouh Shoukri. The petition called on the university to stop the intimidation of Jewish students on campus, citing an incident in February during which Jewish students were barricaded in York’s Hillel Lounge by students yelling anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slogans.
It also referred to “anti-Jewish and anti-Israel graffiti” and “verbal threats of physical harm,” against Jewish students.
The petition demanded that York officials “enforce their official campus policy on disruptive and/or harassing behaviour.”
The petition was passed on to Osgoode Hall Law School dean Patrick Monahan, York’s incoming provost who also chairs York’s new Task Force on Student Life, Learning and Community, which was struck earlier this year in the wake of clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.