How did it get to that point?

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 12-23-10

Once again, as I watch a Canadian campus get roiled – and a university shoot itself in the proverbial foot – I ask, “Where are the grown-ups?”
The British agitator George Galloway spoke at York University in mid-November. Rabbi Ahron Hoch circulated an e-mail urging community members to protest. In it, Rabbi Hoch characterized York’s president, Mamdouh Shoukri, in ways I never would, saying “Mr. Shoukri has again showed his amazing tolerance for antisemitism and lack of vigilance regarding the feeling of safety for Jewish students on campus.” A lawyer for York responded with a letter that I would never write, calling Rabbi Hoch’s words “actionable” while warning Rabbi Hoch and his supporters to stay off campus because the university is “private property.”

Predictably, the clash intensified. Rabbi Hoch circulated the exchange on the Internet, asking why York grants free speech to anti-Israel agitators such as Galloway (who also has said insensitive things about Darfur) but not to pro-Israel Jews. Meanwhile, the university felt harassed, not realizing how much the lawyer’s letter exacerbated the latest mess.

As an outsider, I’m shocked that no one in the York community with ties to the rabbi and the president could talk both sides down, protecting the principle of civil free speech for all and the university’s reputation. I urge York’s president and his counsel to consult with key faculty insiders before pouring oil on future fires.

I understand the university counsel’s first instinct to defend Shoukri against even the hint of an accusation that he’s antisemitic or tolerates antisemitism. It is an ugly charge against a decent man with a tough job. The charge of “lack of vigilance” regarding the safety of Jewish students or any students is devastating enough. The antisemitism jab was inaccurate, even incendiary.

But the prospect of a university suing a rabbi – which is what actionable means – is a lose-lose. A clever lawyer could tar the university’s reputation and cost York big bucks fighting it out regarding what constitutes “tolerance” for antisemitism. More importantly, universities should be bastions of free civil speech. Our recipe for bad speech should be more speech. Few academics can afford to defend themselves against libel suits. A university should never encourage resorting to courts of law rather than courts of public opinion, the sheer beauty of an effective rebuttal or truth itself.

The second half of the counsel’s letter, which most people overlooked, was equally disturbing. The letter unfairly accused Rabbi Hoch of trying to disrupt with more radical action when he merely invited community members to a rally. Yes, the lawyer is correct, technically. Universities are private property. But universities want members of the public to spend money to hear speakers, attend plays and watch films on campus. They celebrate when tourists, potential students, and, of course, most important, potential donors, visit. No one wants universities to be bunkers with “Keep Out” signs.

A lawyer’s job is to make sure a client remains true to core ideals and to talk the client out of foolish, emotional overreactions. Judging by this letter, it’s a shame no one served that function for the university’s lawyers this time.

Meanwhile, as leading Jews squabble with York’s leaders and the university’s core values get trampled in the crossfire, the true enemies of civility and scholarship flourish.

Let’s face it. York has become a flashpoint. I hear about students who have second thoughts about enrolling and about employers who first ask job applicants what’s happening on campus rather than what they’re learning in class. I also hear of a thriving Jewish and intellectual life on campus nevertheless.

This incident was predictable and avoidable. People of stature committed to university values should learn from this experience: those values include students feeling safe, even if they’re Jewish and pro-Israel; encouraging civility and mutual respect, not just for students but for university presidents, and keeping universities as open, welcoming spaces for the public.

There will be other incidents. Will there be grown ups be ready next time to stand up, mediate and avoid another PR disaster for York and the university community?

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