Disagree, but don’t condemn

U of T, as with any university, is a space for peaceful discussion and debate, where all are entitled to their opinions. However, opinions must be justified by fact in order to become well-informed judgments.

I tend to believe that historian Efraim Karsh, a founding director of the Middle East & Mediterranean Studies postgraduate program at King’s College London, was qualified to offer a well-informed judgment at his U of T lecture last month. When, just for once, a visiting professor voices a well-founded yet unpopular finding, we should take it as a new viewpoint or at the very least a criticism and avoid calling for his denunciation.

The facts Karsh that put forward are actually plain and simple. Palestinian leadership has proven to be notoriously difficult to work with throughout history. Until the early 1990s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) did not even acknowledge the right to existence of the State of Israel, resorting to conflict by default. When negotiations started in Oslo for which Yasser Arafat, PLO Chairman and first President of the newly formed Palestinian National Authority, even got a Nobel Prize the Palestinians were granted autonomy. And yet Palestinian authorities have rejected any peace offer made by Israeli governments ever since including an offer involving regions of East Jerusalem in the 2000 Camp David accords.

It’s a hard fact, but it is one a conflict needs two sides to be a conflict. One cannot downplay the role that Palestinian leadership has had in maintaining the conflict, as Karsh has done. Palestinian governments have engaged in decades of organized terrorism the latter wave resulting in hundreds of dead Israeli civilians and Israeli governments responded with periods of controversial force. But presenting either as “mass murder,” as the author has done, is false, biased, uninformed, and misleading. Neither side has engaged in systematic, planned “mass murder.”

As unpopular as the opinion may be, Israel and Palestine have not been at war for seven decades, as the author suggests. Rather, it started as a conflict between Jewish and Arab states that began with a unanimous Arab rejection of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947. The conflict with a self-identifying Palestinian group began taking its current form in the mid-1970s, following countless terror attacks carried out by the newly formed PLO, which is still in control of the autonomous Palestinian Authority and the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine. Israeli governments still negotiate with these organizations, despite their implicit intent to bring Israel to its destruction.

The author’s advocacy for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is extremely problematic. BDS aims to boycott the State of Israel, but doing so is a form of modern antisemitism as it serves to prevent notable Israelis from success in academia, arts, and culture. Coupled with its known ties to the PLO and lack of condemnation toward Hamas — the terrorist organization running the Gaza Strip and whose charter calls for the destruction of the State of Israel — the idea of giving BDS official university sponsorship under the guise of free speech is worrying.

Two sides are in a deadlock, and the conflict will only change with a change of leadership on both ends. There is need for a committed, confident, peace-seeking leader who skillfully navigates the difficult Israeli public space, and a democratically elected leader on the Palestinian side, unaffiliated with organizations openly calling for its negotiating partner’s destruction.

The author has a right to disagree with and reject Karsh’s presentation. After all, Karsh presents an Israeli-centric view, more favourable than others seen in the media. Calling for a condemnation and apology from the university, and a following condemnation of a whole state, however, is not reasonable.

— Arik Portnov


Truth versus myth in the BDS movement

In her article “Who speaks for Palestine?”, Lina Lashin argues that the stated goals of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement are misinterpreted as targeting Israeli and Jewish identities. Whether or not its political objectives are antisemitic, BDS is antisemitic in its effect, if not in its intent.

Although BDS activists paint the movement as a peaceful one that solely seeks to promote fundamental rights using economic pressures, this remains to be seen. BDS emerged during the Second Intifada, a violent resistance movement that predominantly involved wearing explosive-rigged suicide vests and detonating in crowded Israeli civilian areas including pizzerias and cafés.

Israeli civilians were murdered in terror attacks on an almost daily basis, and fearful for our safety, my own family immigrated to Canada. This is the same intifada that fuelled anti-Israel advocates on university campuses. In 2015, the “Stabbing Intifada” wave of violence was supported by the #SolidarityWaveBDS hashtag. Worryingly, Western student activists were using the same hashtags for the same cause.

Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian founder and chief proponent of BDS, does not shy away from admitting the real ambition of BDS: the destruction of Israel. In 2009, Barghouti told the anti-Israel online publication The Electronic Intifada that “people fighting for refugee rights like I am… cannot reconcile the right of return for refugees with a two-state solution… a return for refugees would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.” That year, Barghouti also repeated this position to a group of students at the University of Ottawa.

Lashin and her fellow BDS advocates refer to themselves as proud anti-Zionists, but never antisemites. To most on this campus, antisemitism is untoward, justly put in the same category as racism, sexism, and hatred towards the LGBTQ2I+ community.

However, as outlined in the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a definition adopted by various governments and institutions around the world including Global Affairs Canada, this distinction is incorrect. As noted by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, this definition “reflects a consensus among scholars that a new type of antisemitism has emerged post-Holocaust, in the form of hatred of Jews presented under the guise of hostility toward Israel and/or Zionism.”

Ignoring the deeply entrenched antisemitism involved in anti-Zionist BDS, Lashin argues that free speech is not applied equally at U of T, and that the University of Toronto stifles pro-Palestinian advocacy. Yet just this month, the U of T Faculty of Law hosted well-known Palestinian law advocate and United Nations Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk to discuss the intersections of Palestinians, Indigenous people, and British common law. Moreover, the University of Toronto’s Graduate Students’ Union has spent thousands of student dollars on BDS activities.

The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict is a multilayered, complex issue with human beings on either side, and thus requires empathetic communication and space for difficult cross-dialogue. There is ample room at U of T for discussions on Israel and Palestine. But BDS, and other movements like it, are never helpful and only further the divisiveness on campus. They entrench opposing viewpoints and create division, are openly anti-peace, and are a poor use of student dollars and student union time.

Dean Lavi

Disclosure: Arik Portnov is a contributing producer for the Bazaar podcast by The Varsity.