Paul Bronfman took a strong position when he announced he would withdraw his company’s significant financial support from York University unless a mural titled Palestinian Roots hanging in the school’s student centre was removed. For this, we should be thankful. He has taken a public stand on behalf of the Jewish students of York, and our community at large.
The mural is offensive and uncomfortable to anyone who is aware of its symbols. Palestinian colours, a map of all of Israel, a man holding rocks and looking out over a bulldozer that is about to remove an olive tree – these are reflective of an anti-Israel narrative. They suggest that Israel is the aggressor, deserving of condemnation and, possibly, violence. In the context of the current rash of knife and vehicle attacks in Israel, including the recent deaths of a mother of six and a young woman, the image is that much more offensive.
“THE MURAL IS A NEGATIVE SYMBOL FOR JEWISH STUDENTS”
And yet the reason that the continued existence of the mural in the student centre is important has little to do with the impact of its message on the general student body. That impact is limited to the relative few on campus who notice the mural and recognize its symbols. Rather, its presence reflects the negative experience of many Jewish students at York who do see and understand it, and who are aggrieved by what appears to be a callous disregard for their feelings and emotional welfare. The mural is a negative symbol for Jewish students.
No, the mural is not the major issue confronting Jewish students at York, or, indeed, most universities today. In truth, if the environment on campus were otherwise positive and if Israel was not the perennial whipping boy of the ideological left, which finds a willing host in the so-called progressive halls of today’s universities, the mural might not matter.
But instead, Palestinian Roots acts as a stark reminder that there are many at York who have very strong and very negative, opinions about Israel and Israelis. And for the many Jews on campus who identify strongly with Israel, it is a warning of public denunciation, verbal attacks or worse to come from fellow students, graduate students and professors.
The argument in favour of the mural’s continued display is based on the principle of free speech.
Whatever the message it imparts, so the theory goes, it is art, and as such depicts a point of view, whose reception will vary based on the viewer. Since universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech, the mural is judged a reasonable expression of a point of view.
Fine, except that free speech does not actually exist at York. In fact, at York, and many other campuses, one’s freedom to express a point of view is judged more or less acceptable depending on the point of view expressed. That is why pro-Israel – not to mention plain, old Jewish – events are routinely crashed by protesters. It’s why Jewish students had to be locked up in the Hillel office, for their own protection, a few years ago.
Consider this test: instead of the mural in question, assume that the content depicts two young Palestinians. Instead of holding rocks behind their backs, the two figures are concealing knives in their waistbands. Not far away stands a mother, identified as Jewish, with small children. The meaning would be clear – in fact, it would reflect the reality of life in Israel today.
“TO SUPPORT THE MURAL ON THE BASIS OF FREE SPEECH IS UNACCEPTABLE, BECAUSE FREE SPEECH, IN ITS TRUE SENSE, IS ABSENT AT YORK”
It would be art. It would be presenting a point of view. If we are to have free speech, it should be permitted. But ask yourself this: would that mural ever be hung in the student centre? And would we even want it to be?
Free speech must allow for multiple sides of an issue to be explored – freely, without antagonism or threats. But when it comes to being pro-Israel on campus, I would suggest that this sort of freedom simply does not exist. To support the Palestinian Roots mural on the basis of free speech is unacceptable, because free speech, in its true sense, is absent at York.
Coming back to Paul Bronfman and any other university donor, Jewish or otherwise, they have a right to know that their dollars are generating a positive return, as defined by the donor. If not, there is no point in making the donation. If Bronfman feels aggrieved because of the mural, why wouldn’t he remove his support from York, and in so doing effectively announce: “Not in my name, and not with my dollars.” Perhaps he has decided to redirect those funds to an initiative that will counter the one-sided nature of Middle East political commentary at York or other universities. After all, that is his right and, some would say, his obligation.
Those benefiting from the opportunity to be part of a university environment should remember that they do so only with the support of the larger society, through taxes and donations. That support suggests no group should experience the noxious environment that too many Jewish students feel today at York. Paul Bronfman has brought this issue to the surface where it belongs. The university administration has responded – it will be judged on the outcome of the process it puts into place, not on the process itself.