This year, Israel and Palestine have entered their seventh decade at war. As one of the world’s most conspicuous international conflicts, opinions on the subject vary widely among both scholars and observers, and everyone is entitled to speak freely, engage in dialogue, and offer roadmaps to peace.
With this in mind, every debate, if it is to effect meaningful change, must provide a fair voice for all sides, and, more importantly, outline reasonable limits to drown out the extremes. But that wasn’t the case on January 17, when U of T welcomed Israeli-British historian Efraim Karsh to deliver a lecture entitled “Back to Basic: Rethinking the Arab-Israeli Conflict” at Seeley Hall.
Even though the event was co-sponsored by U of T’s prestigious International Relations (IR) program, my expectations of respectful and constructive academic discourse that would subject neither Palestinians nor Israelis to offence did not come to fruition. The views that Karsh expressed reflected anti-Palestinian racism, and the U of T organizers of the lecture remained, and continue to remain, silent and therefore complicit with the issue.
A beneficial presence?
In the lecture, Karsh indicated that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was self-inflicted by Palestine. This was not surprising. After all, the event’s description foreshadowed Karsh’s problematic view that the Palestinian Arab leadership is to blame for the current lack of Palestinian statehood.
He indicated that Israel saved Palestine from its neighbouring Arab countries, whose agendas were supposedly to take over the territory for themselves. He also claimed that “most Palestinian Arabs benefitted greatly from a growing Jewish presence [in the 1920s and 1930s]. Their situation improved tremendously.”
Karsh did not opt to provide a middle ground argument either, failing to hold Israel accountable for its actions. Beyond this one-sided view, Karsh went to the extreme of ascribing saviourism and patronage to a state that has subjected Palestinians to decades of illegal occupation, settlements, expulsions, mass murders, and bombings. This is not a controversial description — the international community has consistently criticized Israel’s occupation. In sum, Karsh excused the violence in and justified the colonization of Palestine.
When The Varsity contacted Karsh for clarification on his “benefit” comment, he pointed to the socioeconomic development in the region during the interwar period and prior to Israel’s creation. But Karsh’s previous comments, such as in a 2017 interview with YouTube channel J-TV, point to his belief that Palestinian Arabs also benefitted, at least regarding life expectancy increases, under the existence of Israel in the decades following World War II.
The creation of Israel resulted in the expulsion and flight of 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland in the first year of the conflict alone. Karsh failed to explain how this supposedly beneficial interwar period was relevant in light of the history of the occupation that has devastated the Palestinian people.
“An invented people”
Karsh also denied the legitimacy of a Palestinian identity, declaring that “they are not a nation,” but rather an “invented people.” He elaborated that “they are just some Arab tribes, a collective of people from other Arab countries.” When asked by The Varsity to elaborate on these claims, he responded that “no independent political entity called Palestine had existed prior to the revival of the name by the British in WWI,” and that it “hardly developed from the 1920s throughout the late 1940s.”
While the origin of Palestinian identity is subject to considerable historiographical debate, Karsh’s description of Palestinians as an “invented people” is a racist trope designed to reduce the gravity of, and even justify, Israel’s treatment of Palestine. Denying the identity of the Palestinian people is to deny the legitimacy of their grievances as an occupied people. If there is no legitimate ‘ethnicity’ to begin with, then the ethnic cleansing that Palestinians have experienced did not happen.
Today, Palestinians embrace their national identity as a mode of claiming their homeland and resisting Israel’s occupation. While all nations are indeed constructed, they become real to the people who identify with them. If Palestine is to be called invented, then so should Israel, Canada, and every other nation-state. To selectively focus on Palestinian identity is to justify political imperatives, namely colonization and ethnic cleansing.
However, Karsh arguably gave his worst responses when discussing the prospect of peace in the Q&A period. The Gaza Strip and West Bank are the only territories left under Palestinian self-government. His view was that even these two territories should not be joined into one state, although a unified Palestine under a two-state solution is the best solution by the consensus of the international community. He later said that, were the two territories to join, “some Palestinian will pop up from the ground and blow [Israelis] up.”
Although Karsh did not recognize this claim at all in his comments to The Varsity, multiple sources present at the lecture independently corroborated the statement. In my view, what Karsh implied with this claim is that a unified Palestine is an inherent terrorist threat to Israel.
Ultimately, Karsh’s reading of history overlooks and correspondingly justifies Israel’s past and present actions against Palestine. In light of U of T welcoming such views, it is worth considering whether Karsh’s lecture is an isolated and unusual incident on our campus or not.
A broader pattern: U of T and Canada
This is certainly not the first time that a speaker with such extreme views on the conflict has been welcomed on campus. In 2005, controversial US scholar of the Middle East Daniel Pipes was invited, despite backlash and protest from students. Academics and students refused to give Pipes a platform for what they called “hate, prejudice and fear-mongering” on campus, but ultimately, his ‘free speech’ argument won and he was able to speak.
Meanwhile, U of T itself has a history of limiting free speech when it comes to pro-Palestinian advocacy. This is especially the case for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) groups on campus, as argued in a 2009 article by activist Liisa Schofield. Schofield argues that the administration engages in active opposition to pro-Palestinian activism.
Although BDS is a peaceful human rights movement that seeks to use economic means to pressure the Israeli state to comply with international law, similar to past calls for the boycott of apartheid South Africa, it is frequently misconstrued and conflated with antisemitism.
When the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) motion supporting the creation of an ad hoc BDS committee was first turned down in 2015, executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto Marc Newburgh stated, “This decision is an important step toward building a campus community where all students, regardless of their background and identity, feel safe, welcome, and secure.” In 2016, U of T President Meric Gertler similarly rejected the idea of a BDS ad hoc advisory committee because it did not make sense to “[boycott] interaction with an entire nation.”
Just last month, at a town hall at Brock University, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his November parliamentary condemnation of the BDS movement, in which he associated it with the kind of antisemitism that saw Canada turn away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This is unsurprising — Trudeau has been criticized before for his government’s silence on Israel’s atrocities in Palestine.
In other words, BDS is misinterpreted as targeting Israeli and Jewish identities. But BDS has actual political objectives, such as ending the occupation of Palestine. BDS supporters have not even been allowed to make their case through these committees, however, and the university continues to invest in companies that are complicit in illegal Israeli activities in Palestine.
In a HuffPost article, U of T student Alex Verman notes the ways in which pro-Palestinian activism is being intimidated and silenced by our governments. They also point to well-financed and organized pro-Israeli groups, like StandWithUs, that have harassed pro-Palestinian students and staff.
The point is that, if our universities and governments are so invested in the Israeli state, it should be of no surprise that free speech on campus regarding the conflict doesn’t apply fairly across the board. While pro-Palestinian BDS advocacy is dismissed as racist, pro-Israeli speakers who distort history and justify Israel’s widely condemned actions against Palestine are welcomed, whether in 2005 or 2019.
Whose free speech?
Prior to the current conflict, Jewish and Muslim citizens lived in Palestine for centuries in peace. But Karsh, and those who echo his anti-Palestinian sentiments, serve to widen the divide between these peoples.
Following Karsh’s lecture, I contacted organizers of the event expressing my shock and anger toward his views, and demanded recognition for the offensive content of the lecture and a publication of a letter of apology.
Professor John Kirton, the interim director of the IR program and organizer of the event, wrote in response that “the mission of [U of T] is to enrich the critical thinking of our students, professorial colleagues and others in our scholarly community on issues of importance.” He continued, “We also are committed… to exposing our students to a diverse range of views.”
It is clear that hate speech is being confused for freedom of speech and diversity of thought. The purported objective of Karsh’s lecture was to bring light to an issue of importance. Instead, the Palestinian identity was degraded.
The event organizers could have demonstrated real ‘diversity’ if they had hosted panelists with other views or invited a moderator to question and challenge Karsh. Instead, Karsh was given an unrestricted platform at the expense of the well-being and security of students for whom Palestine carries deep meaning.
I have not heard any substantive follow-up feedback from Kirton in our correspondence, and given the history of U of T’s responses to similar concerns, I am sadly not anticipating any either. Nonetheless, I have mobilized the support of over 100 Ontario students who now await U of T’s response to this issue.
The university should consider implementing an outline of clear limitations on advocacy around the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Just as justifying violence against Palestinians should not be allowed, Israeli and Jewish students should be protected from racial and religious discrimination too. But this cannot be conflated with political criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation and treatment of Palestine.
Freedom comes with responsibility. U of T must carefully assess the content of speeches that take place with its endorsement and apply a vetting policy for guest speakers accordingly. If we support a kind of free speech that enables attacks on already marginalized identities, then whose freedoms are we even fighting for?
Lina Lashin is a first-year Social Sciences student at New College.
Editor’s Note: Because Karsh contested almost every claim in Lashin’s account of his lecture, Karsh’s responses have been included in this article. Multiple sources who attended the lecture independently corroborated Lashin’s account to Varsity editors.