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York University Update

December 12, 2010 | by Ahron Hoch

Aish rabbi meets with university officials in Toronto.

In November 2010, former British MP and Hezbollah and Hamas-supporter George Galloway delivered a speech at York University in Toronto. Rabbi Ahron Hoch of Aish Toronto encouraged his students to peacefully protest against this terror supporter – and Rabbi Hoch was promptly threatened with legal action by York University. Here he updates the situation:

In the past few weeks since Galloway appeared at York University, I have spent many hours speaking to experts not only about the problem as I see it, but also solutions.

Professor Ed Morgan, an expert on these situations, and I met with Dr. Mamdouh Shoukri and York's Provost, Patrick Monahan. We were greeted very warmly and not as adversaries in any way. We engaged in a productive dialogue, both during and after the meeting. We agreed to treat the meeting itself as private, so I will talk mostly in generalities about what we discussed, but as a result of subsequent correspondence I will be able to provide some details about our respective positions…

Before dealing with the problem and possible solutions, it is important that there be a balance regarding the situation at York. It must be highlighted that the recent events at York are not unique to York. They are happening on campuses all across the U.S. and Canada. That these problems occur at York is particularly painful because it is in our backyard and because of all the support that York provides to the advancement of Jewish education…

Related Article: The New Anti-Semitism

Code Words

Turning to the problem, it was common ground at the meeting that not all criticism of Israel either reflects or transforms into anti-Semitism. However, on many university campuses, including York, too much of it does – most obviously to me is when the criticism questions Israel's right to exist as an independent nation. Throughout these last three weeks, I have tried to convey the horror that I and many others felt when a student organization sympathetic to Hamas, invited a speaker whose past record shows his sympathy for Hamas, and the administrators said nothing about it. We watched similar scenarios take place at other universities across Canada. All this was done under the name of freedom of speech and academic expression. Nowhere did we witness any condemnation of Hamas or its agenda for genocide. The silence was deafening.

Universities have always been the incubators of tomorrow's norms. If today, talk on campus about genocide (no matter how sophisticated it is, no matter the "code words" that are used) is perceived as normal, acceptable speech, then tomorrow the actual destruction will be seen as normal, acceptable conduct. The term I have been using is that a few have hijacked the freedom of speech that universities provide, as a tactic to achieve their preferred future where, for the many, freedom of speech is not permitted.

In the early 1920s, Hitler’s anti-Semitism was considered not worthy of attention.

In the early 1900s, canaries were used by miners as an early warning system. If the canary keeled over, the miner knew that he was in a toxic environment. In the early 1920s, Hitler was regarded as insignificant; his position on "the Jewish Question" was considered ludicrous and not worthy of attention. Jews proved to be the "canary in the mine," as Hitler's hatred spread far beyond their bounds and engulfed the entire world.

Some have suggested that there is a meaningful comparison to be made between Europe in the 1920s and today. Others see that view as extreme. My point is that the problem on university campuses today is not about the Jewish people; we are just once again the miner's canary. The agenda of Hamas or of Iran's current regime openly seek to destroy the values enjoyed in free and democratic societies. The danger of the continued hijacking on campuses is a threat to all democracies.

Turning to possible solutions to the problem, Dr. Shoukri confirmed in a recent email to me, using language similar to that used in what some call the Ottawa Protocol, that York is committed to combating any form of anti-Semitism, and all forms of hate speech or acts, and that the university has absolutely no tolerance for any kind of discrimination based on gender, race, language, religion, sexual orientation, political position – or ethnic origin…

York's efforts regarding these steps are, once again, to be commended. Implementation of York's own recommendations should make a huge positive difference, but in my view may not be sufficient to prevent the dire consequences that could result if the hijacking of campus free speech described above is permitted to escalate. If we are to learn from the past, I believe now is the time for all of us, especially university administrators, to speak out against such speech. Complexities I now better understand that may arise from the administrators' speaking out publicly cannot be the overriding factor when it comes to the potential normalization of genocide through speech seemingly tolerated on campus.

From my dialogue with York it is clear that the university genuinely does not believe that its recent silence could reasonably be construed as tolerance of anti-Semitism. I believe and fear to the contrary. Accordingly, I will continue to ask university administrators to speak out where it is appropriate to do so and, to the extent there is any doubt as to when it is appropriate to do so, I will revisit with York and others the possibility of a committee's or Task Force's consideration of this issue.

Chanukah Lesson

So where does that leave us and what are the lessons we should learn from what has transpired?

First, one of the most important lessons of Chanukah is that one person, Matityahu, saw a serious threat not only to the Jewish people but also to the progress of bringing morality to the entire world. One person stood up and made the difference. I truly believe that the potential Matityahu in the current situation is you. We live in times where we cannot leave it to others to solve the huge problems facing the Jewish people and the world. All of us need to feel personal responsibility and know that every single one of us has the potential to make a difference just like Matityahu. Therefore we must:

  • Use what happened to re-energize ourselves and realize that change happens when we take true responsibility. As our Sages teach us, "Nothing stands in the way of will."
  • Make sure that we and our children are better educated on the issues in the Middle East and throughout the world. Most of us need to be better informed, if we are going to engage in better public or private debate. I know I needed to be, and continue to need to be.
  • Become better informed on what is taking place on local campuses. Ask your children what is taking place and read campus newspapers with them.
  • Let your views be heard, respectfully and civilly.

I believe the letters that many of you wrote to universities and to newspapers have and will make a difference. Also, your local politicians need to hear from you and know how strong a threat you feel this is. Peaceful protest brings attention to the cause and sometimes eventually persuades.

In closing, I want to thank the community for the tremendous amount of support I received. I also want to thank Professor Morgan and all the people that I consulted and worked with. I greatly appreciate the many hours they put in. Let's hope that our efforts succeed in making this a national discussion which is so vitally needed.


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