Let’s be clear: the legislative council of the Student Society of McGill University is not McGill; the McGill Daily is not McGill; and Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill is certainly not McGill. Nevertheless, they’ve succeeded in defining, and defaming, the university.
The many headlines decrying anti-Semitism at McGill should alarm McGillians. Those of us whose professional lives are intertwined with this iconic university face the prospect of McGill looking more like Concordia University in September 2002, when anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual thugs prevented Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking there.
After deteriorating for years, the Concordia calamity generated international headlines when pro-Palestinian goons silenced an Israeli statesman, kicked an aging Holocaust survivor, Thomas Hecht, in the groin and threw pennies at other Jews.
At Concordia, and at McGill, anti-Zionism spread, and anti-Semitism sprouted. It’s true that, theoretically, one could simply be against Israel’s policies. But today’s irrational, obsessive hatred of Israel, what the legendary computer scientist and philosopher Judea Pearl calls “Zionophobia,” reflects a deeply ingrained anti-Semitism and expresses itself in vulgar Jew-hatred, from tweets about “Jew boys” who challenge BDS, to Holocaust-related oven jokes.
At Concordia, as at McGill, we saw that silence is consent. A meek administration, a cowed professoriate – what I call the silence of the tenured lambs – a distracted (or intimidated) student body, allow an aggressive, spiteful minority to hijack the debate and tar great universities. Unfortunately, it takes decades to build a good reputation and mere seconds – along with a few volatile 240-character tweets – to knock it down.
Fortunately, at Concordia, as at McGill, we saw that it’s not that hard to resist these totalitarians, who fear honest debate and an acknowledgment that the Middle East conflict is complex, not black and white. Concordians started noticing that their university’s reputation as “Concordistan” was overshadowing the good academic work they were doing. In 2003, a student slate called Evolution not Revolution demanded “students first, activism second,” and attracted a record turnout at student government elections. The students managed to stand up and take back their university. By that time, the administration had become more proactive and the Jewish community had started supporting harassed students.
At McGill, the administration, led by Suzanne Fortier, has tried to contain the Zionophobic bullies. But it’s not easy. When pro-Palestinians pushed a BDS resolution in 2016, Fortier wisely kept quiet at first, not wanting her intervention to trigger a pro-student autonomy backlash that would propel the BDS resolution forward. Once the vote was taken, she denounced boycotts as what they are – totalitarian assaults on free speech and the values of openness and mutual respect that are at the foundation of every university.
I wish McGill’s administrators had more directly called out the anti-Semitism sluicing underneath these attacks. Still, when I compare how McGill’s leadership has handled these near-constant assaults to most other North American universities, I am filled with admiration.
I don’t envy McGill’s administrators, stuck as they are between these thugs surfing on the dictatorial, doctrinaire politically correct trends that are distorting academia these days and the genuine distress of students who are browbeaten for the “crimes” of being Jewish or pro-Israel. But just as we have learned that where anti-Zionism treads, Jew hatred follows, we’ve also seen that when bullies face silence and cowardice, they thrive – and when they face protest and courage, they flee.
Beyond the administration, I applaud the heroic student, Jordyn Wright, and all those who rallied around her. To me, they are the real McGill. Fortier and her colleagues are the real McGill. I define McGill by the best among us, not the worst.
These lessons suggest that more of us should stand up and support our student heroes who are fighting against hatred and for free thought.