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Second Guessing a Conference

June 11, 2009

In a move some critics have called unprecedented and dangerous, a Canadian government official has asked its humanities granting council to reconsider the funding of an academic conference some Jewish groups are calling “anti-Israeli” and “anti-Semitic."

Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, asked the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – the Canadian equivalent of the National Endowment for the Humanities – to reconsider its awarding of $19,750 in funding for an upcoming conference at York University, in Toronto.

Israel/ Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace,” scheduled to take place two weeks from now, has generated palpable anxiety among groups like the Jewish Defence League of Canada, which earlier this year started a campaign to prevent it. They view the conference’s focus on alternatives to the current “two-state model” being pushed by many international observers as threatening to Jews in the region.

Many of the papers to be given at the conference promote the idea of the "one-state solution" in which Israel and Palestinian areas would be combined into a single, secular state – an idea many in Israel view as equivalent to giving up their right to exist as a nation. Many of the papers also compare the current situation in Israel with that of apartheid-era South Africa.

Meir Weinstein, national director of the Jewish Defence League of Canada, which has led the charge against the conference, said the event's advisory committee was full of academics whom he called "viciously anti-Israel." He said he believes the conference is "camouflaging" its true intentions, even though a formal statement about the event notes it will not tolerate "anti-Semitism nor any other form of racism." (Note: This version of the article corrects an error from an earlier version; the Jewish Defense League in the United States was contacted mistakenly.)

An official statement from Goodyear outlines some of the general concern expressed to the government.

“Several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concern that some of the speakers [at this conference] have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic,” Goodyear stated. “Some have also expressed concerns that the event is no longer an academic research-focussed [sic] event.”

Goodyear has asked that the granting council “consider conducting a second peer review of the application” to verify whether the conference still meets its academic funding criteria.

Gary Toft, spokesman for Goodyear’s office, would not disclose the names of any of the other groups whose concern prompted the minister’s call for action. He did, however, note that the minister had received “hundred of e-mails” from Canadians who were worried about the nature of the conference. This is the first time during Goodyear’s tenure, Toft confirmed, that he has asked a granting council to reconsider a funding decision. Toft did not know if prior ministers had made similar moves.

Officials from the granting council would not discuss the details of any of the concerns formally expressed to the organization. Trevor Lynn, council spokesman, would only say it was “looking into this matter in the context of [its] established policies and procedures.”

The granting council’s regulations governing funded conferences state that “minor changes,” such as the “replacement of a guest speaker or addition of a new topic,” do not need formal approval. They do note, however, that “major changes,” “such as changing the theme or focus of the event,” need written approval from the council.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, a large organization representing multiple faculty unions in academe, has called for Goodyear's resignation, arguing that his request to review the funding of this conference is tantamount to an “attack on academic freedom.”

“It’s unprecedented for a minister – let alone a minister from the department that funds the granting councils – to intervene personally with a granting council president to suggest that he review funding for an academic conference,” stated James Turk, executive director of the association. “This kind of direct political interference in a funding decision made through an independent, peer-reviewed process is unacceptable and sets a very dangerous precedent.”

Officials at York University have defended the conference. Some critics there argued that, because of its content, the conference should not be part of the formal calendar of events for the institution’s high-profile 50th anniversary celebration. Mamdouh Shoukri, president and vice-chancellor of York, disregarded these calls and responded in a written statement that “excluding a conference because of its subject matter” would be a “fundamental violation of academic freedom.”

“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,” Shoukri stated. “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, are consistent with the obligations [of academic freedom] and deal with issues that are appropriate for academic debate.”

The conference’s organizers take offense at and dispute claims by some that their event is “anti-Israeli” and “anti-Semitic.” Sharryn Aiken, assistant law professor at Queen’s University, located about three hours east of Toronto, said she had planned “outreach events” long before the conference was scheduled in order to generate interest and understanding among the Canadian Jewish community as to its purpose.

“I don’t feel the charges from some of these groups [like the Jewish Defence League] are fair,” said Aiken, who noted that she was Jewish and an active member of her local Jewish community. “I don’t think that they reflect, even-handedly, what this is all about. The conference will focus on the emerging scholarship on the idea of bi-nationalism. Still, when people bring up the idea of one state, it brings to mind the idea of destroying the home state for Jews. That’s not it. We’re going to have a lively debate and dialogue on how to achieve peace and coexistence in the region. This isn’t code for something else. There’s no hidden agenda.”

Aiken also disputed claims that she and her colleagues handpicked more speakers of one political persuasion than another. She noted that grant stipulations require that the conference hold an open call for papers.

“We’re entertaining some papers proposing radical solutions for the region, but they do not suggest undermining or destroying the Jewish homeland,” Aiken said. “There may be a few abstracts which a few of these groups might find objectionable, but a wide variety of perspectives will be represented.”

As of yesterday evening, neither Aiken nor any of the conference’s other organizers had heard from the granting council about a formal complaint. Aiken dismissed the concerns as being from those “who simply don’t understand how the grant application process works.” She was optimistic that the conference would retain its government funding.

“We’ve been nothing but transparent and honest from day one,” Aiken said. “None of us are concerned that our funding will be in jeopardy. We’ve meet and exceeded the criteria for it. I’d be very surprised if there were any issues.”

The Jewish Defence League of Canada is hosting a town hall meeting tonight in Toronto to plan a protest against the conference and its organizers and sponsors. Weinstein said he considers York's sponsorship of the conference an endorsement of the views expressed by some of the organizers his group finds objectionable. He said his group will still push to get the government grant revoked.

"I can't understand how professors can wrap themselves in academic freedom and feel that they are free to preach hate speech," Weinstein said. "I don't accept that argument at all. This is not academic freedom. This is hate, pure and simple."

In formal response to Goodyear’s request, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is expected to announce whether it will mandate a second peer review of the conference’s funding request at some point today.

 

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