TORONTO — A controversial academic conference on Israel scheduled to start Monday at York University has drawn the eye of Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, who last week called for a review of federal funding to the event.
“Israel-Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace” received $19,750 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in January and features more than 50 guest speakers, many of whom are renowned for their anti-Israel views.
“We feel this conference is really not an academic conference… and does not meet rigorous academic criteria,” said Howard English, spokesperson for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
English said the event has an anti-Israel tilt and many presenters aren’t strictly considered academics.
“There is a predominance [of speakers]… who have a history of vehement anti-Israel statements,” he added, noting that many – such as Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, a website that claims Israel is an apartheid state – aren’t objective presenters.
“To say [Abunimah] is anti-Israel would be a mild understatement,” English said. “The preoccupation of this conference with a ‘one-state’ solution will only highlight the legitimacy of the demise of Israel as a Jewish state.”
The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which represents 65,000 academics, is calling for Goodyear’s resignation because of his “unprecedented efforts to interfere” with the June 22-24 conference.
The CAUT said that Goodyear’s decision to contact the president of SSHRC “to express political concerns is not something we have seen in this country since the McCarthy period,” and that the move “sets a very dangerous precedent.”
Last month, York University president Mamdouh Shoukri said that the “freedom of independent scholars to organize events such as conferences on matters of legitimate academic inquiry goes to the very heart of academic freedom,” adding that it “would be entirely inappropriate for the university administration to intervene in or to take responsibility for the academic content of such events, provided that they do not offend Canadian law.”
A peer review committee of scholars from a number of academic disciplines awarded the SSHRC grant. Goodyear contacted SSHRC last week to ask that a second review committee assess whether the event still deserves funding, given that the initial proposal didn’t have details about who would be speaking.
SSHRC spokesperson Trevor Lynn, confirmed Goodyear had spoken to the council, and that it had asked conference organizer and Osgoode Hall associate law professor Bruce Ryder to provide details about any changes to the conference since the grant was made.
Under SSHRC guidelines, applicants are allowed “minor” changes to conferences, but approval for major changes, such as to an event’s theme or focus, must be made in writing.
Lynn wouldn’t speculate on what SSHRC might do if it decided major changes had been made.
Sharryn Aiken, a Jewish law professor at Queen’s University and a lead organizer of the event, urged the Jewish community to remain open-minded about it. She also refuted claims about non-academic speakers.
“At least 90 per cent of the confirmed speakers are academics affiliated with academic institutions around the world,” Aiken told The CJN. “The minority of people that aren’t fall into the category of ‘public intellectuals’ with publication records in this specific area.”
Aiken said speakers such as Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, and David Berlin, a Jewish ex-pat Israeli and former editor of the Walrus, who, while not academics, were accepted based on their experience.
Aiken acknowledged that Abunimah’s background “raises a lot of anxiety,” but she defended his participation and called his book on Israel, titled One Country, “a thoughtful book about the way forward out of the impasse.”
“I’m not a self-hating Jew who is anti-Israel,” she said. “I am deeply disappointed by the reaction in the [Jewish] community and by those who know me and who continue to insist that this conference is all about promoting hate.”
With files from JTA