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Opinion: We need to be able to talk about Palestine

Examining biases and barriers to talking about human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories
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A pro-Palestine protest at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. SAMANTHA HAMILTON/THE VARSITY
A pro-Palestine protest at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. SAMANTHA HAMILTON/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of violence in Israel and Palestine. 

Police throwing weapons into a revered place of worship while people are praying inside is wrong. Forcibly removing people from their homes is not only wrong but also violates international law. Israeli ultra-nationalists openly chanting “death to Arabs” is racist and also wrong.  

As a U of T student sharing my opinion, I should be comfortable making these statements about recent Israeli attacks on Palestinians — factual statements that any reasonable person would agree with.  

And yet, I write this with apprehension, unsure of how hostile the responses to this article will be, but I am almost certain that my opinion will be heavily criticized, perhaps even called antisemitic. 

I’m not alone in this. Other U of T students have expressed hesitancy to write about Israel’s human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories because of the controversy around this issue. How is it that a world-renowned educational institution cannot offer its students enough security to comfortably exercise their freedom of speech, especially regarding Israel’s occupation of Palestine? 

A quick venture into The Varsity’s archives reveals that both the paper and the university as a whole have a reputation of being ‘anti-Israel.’ Calling The Varsity anti-Israel is absurd; articles that criticize Israel are few and far between — certainly not frequent enough to argue that The Varsity is decidedly pro-Palestine.  

U of T certainly has some evidence to support its anti-Israel reputation; it was once ranked by an external publication as one of the worst schools for Jewish students and has student unions that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. However, the director of Hillel U of T called the ranking “misleading,” and while some student unions indeed support BDS, the U of T administration seems to address the issues surrounding the illegal Israeli occupation differently.

A recent demonstration of U of T’s stance on Israel came into the limelight when the Faculty of Law allegedly rescinded its offer for the position of director of the International Human Rights Program to Dr. Valentina Azarova — who has written about Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine. The university claims a formal job offer was never made, but Azarova had been contacted by the university to discuss her candidacy, which was later terminated allegedly due to pressure from donor and judge David Spiro.

While an independent review concluded that Spiro’s influence was not a factor in the termination of Azarova’s candidacy, many recognize that the conclusion is not consistent with the facts surrounding the scandal. 

Among those who disapprove of U of T’s actions are the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which decided to censure U of T, and Amnesty International, which suspended its partnership with U of T

More recently, members of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine wrote a public letter to request the removal of Dr. Ritika Goel from her position as the faculty lead in social accountability at the Department of Family and Community Medicine for expressing solidarity with Palestine. The letter holds Goel responsible for antisemitic responses to her anti-Zionist tweets. 

Both of these situations demonstrate a very parochial view that favours anti-Palestine rhetoric and illustrates that pro-Israel sentiment may be built into the very fabric of U of T as an institution. 

It seems that there is also support for Israel among people and institutions such as Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, The New York Times and CBC News. The US and Canada are long-time partners of Israel, and both news publications have made critical missteps in their coverage of Palestine. And U of T often appears to stand solidly with Israel as well, as evidenced by the Azarova controversy.

For an institution whose mission statement highlights the school’s dedication to “vigilant protection for individual human rights,” U of T does not foster an environment conducive to those who wish to speak out against the human rights violations committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians.   

However, this suppression is not unique to U of T. In 2019, Canada recognized the new definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Under this definition, antisemitism also includes certain critiques of the State of Israel.  

The problem with this definition is that critique of Israel’s policies could be, and often is, labelled as antisemitic. The IHRA definition provides many examples that focus on the State of Israel and effectively equate it with Jewish identity. 

Moreover, the IHRA definition and those who use it also divert attention from other instances of anti-Jewish racism, and instead focus on the criticism that is directed at the State of Israel and its actions. 

This idea is not far-fetched or difficult to understand; the Jewish Faculty of Canada recognizes the problems with the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, and demands that “university policies to combat antisemitism are not used to stifle legitimate criticisms of the Israeli state, or the right to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”  

These educated, esteemed Jewish individuals from universities across Canada understand that pro-Palestinian rhetoric is not the same as speaking ill of Jewish people. They understand that it’s not fair to use the suffering of their own people to belittle or eradicate Palestinian suffering. 

I’m sorry, but is it wrong to disapprove of throwing stun grenades at civilians while they are peacefully worshipping their god? Or to express horror when Israeli soldiers wound over 150 peaceful worshippers in one night? Or to object to the Israeli army harming medical professionals who were there to treat those injured in Al-Aqsa Mosque?

We should be allowed to speak out against the humanitarian crimes that Israeli soldiers and settlers are committing without being silenced under the guise of antisemitism. Those of us who do speak out don’t intend to incriminate Jewish people but instead the people who carry out and support attacks on Palestinians.  

We’re not against Judaism, but we are against the people who perform atrocities in the name of Judaism. 

U of T is not a newspaper, nor is it a political group. It is a school — a place where people from all walks of life come together to share information and expand their minds. U of T, unlike political groups, should not be biased toward Israel or Palestine.  

But the individuals that make up its population can be.  

If you want to exercise your right to free speech and write an article supporting Israel, you have all the channels — and, as it seems, all the support from the U of T administration and donors — to do so.  

But if you can do that, I can voice my disapproval and express my horror at the deaths of innocent children.  

Given this human rights issue with two drastically opposing viewpoints, there are bound to be debates and strongly worded verbal attacks, but it should never be a question whether or not it is okay to speak up for what you believe in and give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.  

So, when I talk about Palestine, let me.   

Please.

Safiya Patel is a second-year student studying neuroscience and English at UTSC. She is the Marketing Director for DSTEM UofT and served as a lead copy editor for Volume 141 of The Varsity