As a Jewish commentator on the Israel-Palestine conflicts, Norman Finkelstein is a fierce critic of Israel, accusing the Jewish state of militarism, illegal settlements and human rights violations. The child of Holocaust survivors, he is the author of ten books including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering and Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history. Finkelstein argues that the American Jewish establishment exploits the memory of the Holocaust for political and financial gain, as well as to further the interests of Israel.
Regarding Hezbollah, the Islamist, anti-Israel group that is considered a terrorist organization by most countries, Finkelstein stated not long after the 2007 Israel-Lebanon conflict, “I was of course happy to meet the Hezbollah people because it is a point of view that is rarely heard in the United States. And I have no problem saying that I do want to express solidarity with them."
Finkelstein is slated to speak at the University of Toronto Mississauga this month, in the run-up to the annual Israeli Apartheid Week.
Hasbara Fellowships, describing itself as the “leading pro-Israel campus activism organization working with over 80 Universities across North America,” has asked the University of Toronto’s Governing Council to repudiate Finkelstein’s past anti-Israel remarks, and to denounce Israeli Apartheid Week. Hasbara Fellowships brings hundreds of students to Israel every year, giving them the information and tools to return to their campuses as educators about Israel.
Hasbara Fellowships states that “Finkelstein's past comments are worthy of condemnation because they do not build bridges or mend fences. … they do not further any process of mutual understanding and are divisive statements that we see as having shades of antisemitism. We are certain that the University of Toronto does not want to be seen as being complicit in Israel Apartheid Week as a result of their silence.”
If the university is a forum for the expression of diverse views and vigorous debate between competing claims, it cannot take sides on any moral, academic, political or philosophical issues. Like a referee facilitating a game, the university should enable the examination and discussion of all perspectives, without itself becoming a party in those debates. Therefore, I won’t be signing Hasbara Fellowships’ online petition calling on the U of T to denounce Finkelstein’s views.
However, there is a world of difference between the Hasbara Fellowships petition, which does not seek to silence Finkelstein’s voice, and the tactics that are often used against speakers who reject political correctness. People who are pro-Israel, pro-life, conservative or otherwise right-of-centre, and those who challenge radical feminism, LGBTQ political ideology, or the identity politics of the progressive Left, are routinely silenced on campus, with the approval of university presidents.
As documented at www.campusfreedomindex.ca, when the McGill Friends of Israel planned an event called “Israel: A-Party,” designed to counter-message Israeli Apartheid Week, the Students’ Society of McGill University told these students that they would have to change the name of the event, threatening "possible consequences such as suspension of club status" if they refused.
Disruptive protesters at the University of Waterloo, chanting slogans about “no platforms for Nazis,” forcibly silenced author and National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, a strong advocate for the rule of law and the free society. All while campus security stood by and watched.
At McMaster University, loud, disruptive “protesters” screamed obscenities, beat drums and rang cow bells to prevent Jordan Peterson from speaking. This reprehensible conduct was then condoned by the university’s president, Patrick Deane, having been encouraged if not instigated by his Advisory Committee on Building Inclusive Community.
The University of Toronto should uphold Finkelstein’s free expression rights, and the right of people to hear and listen to his views. This is the correct approach.
However, this standard was not applied to Students for Life, which was barred by the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union from club status, effectively preventing them from using the student centre and accessing student union resources. Students for Life could not join other campus clubs in setting up a table during clubs’ week, or make use of campus spaces to engage other students in discussion.
If U of T permits Finkelstein to speak on its campus, it will be because of his progressive, politically correct opinions, not because the university is committed to free expression.
Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca) which measures the state of campus free speech in Canada at www.campusfreedomindex.ca.