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When Bombs Fall on Distant Ivory Towers

January 8, 2009

The fighting in the Gaza Strip may be awfully far from Canada’s shores, but at least one Canadian seems determined to strike some sort of misguided blow against Zionist aggression. The president of the CUPE Ontario union, a transplanted Irishman called Sid Ryan, is calling for Israeli academics to be boycotted from Ontario’s universities. This is ostensibly in protest over the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza, which Ryan considers particularly brutal and unjustified.

In some respects, it makes sense for CUPE to concern itself with this incident. CUPE has a natural connection to academic life, since many of its members work on university campuses, and the thought of Israeli ordnance falling on a centre of learning must strike close to home – as it does for me, since I’m a long-term denizen of the ivory tower myself. On the other hand, the Islamic University is closely associated with the Hamas movement, and the Israelis probably saw it less as a centre of learning than as a centre of indoctrination. They have also apparently claimed that the university was being used to store some of Hamas’ weapons, although of course assertions like this can’t be taken at face value (especially when they surface in a National Post opinion piece).

Whether or not the attack on the university was a legitimate act of war or a gratuitous outrage depends on a moral calculus that is probably different for each individual. Personally, I think the critical question is the strength (or lack thereof) of the evidence for Hamas weaponry on campus. If there was no good evidence, then I would consider the bombing to be ugly, heavy-handed and even wantonly destructive.

Even in this case, however, Ryan’s proposed boycott would strike me as foolish and “disproportionate”, to deploy a term that is being overused in the media. He wants to ban as researchers, teachers, and even speakers all Israeli academics who have not explicitly denounced the bombing of the university and “the assault on Gaza in general”. But surely it’s unfair to expect an organic chemist or a professor of literature to make public pronouncements on a military conflict, and in any case universities ought to be places where even the most extreme opinions can be debated in an atmosphere of mutual respect. If I happened to encounter Israeli academics who thought the Islamic University ought to have been bombed into ivy-covered rubble, weapons or no weapons, I would rather answer their arguments than simply avoid talking to them.

There’s also a question of what might be called relevance. If I were to abandon my notions of intellectual freedom and look around for thought crimes that merited exclusion from the academy, I certainly wouldn’t start by interrogating people about their views on a festering Middle Eastern conflict that has little direct impact on Canada or most Canadians. Sid Ryan should find something better to do with his time – looking after the interests of CUPE members in a foundering economy, for example.


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    January 9, 2009 11:26 am

    Hi Cor and Reilly, very interesting exchange, particularly the comments just previous re “race” v. “citizenship” – yikes. There’s s ton of literary and sociological readings on this very concept : a long complicated body of work. Stephen Jay Gould and Edward Said, to name just two folks who have deconstructed and drilled deep into the whole notion of what we mean when we use the word, “race.” R

  2. January 9, 2009 9:49 am

    Excellent point Cor – so not based on race, but on citizenship. I suppose that’s somewhat less offensive.

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    January 9, 2009 8:29 am

    Reilly — I certainly agree with you that collective punishment is not likely to solve anything. Another point that I somehow neglected to work into the original post is that many Israeli academics are damn good, to put it bluntly, and we would be doing their potential students and colleagues in Ontario a real disservice by keeping them away.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the proposed boycott as “based on race” (in italics or otherwise). The boycott would presumably affect all Israeli citizens, including Arabs, and would in turn not affect Jews from countries other than Israel. Of course it’s possible that Sid Ryan is motivated by some kind of anti-Jewish feeling, but I don’t know of any actual evidence for that. He’s apparently pretty sympathetic to Northern Irish republicans, too, and he might be so vehemently pro-Palestinian mostly because he sees a parallel with the Troubles. But now I’m really speculating.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t call your post the least bit cowardly. There’s nothing wrong with understanding that there are reasonable arguments on both sides, not to mention a lot of frustratingly unreasonable ones. My own attitude towards the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict often comes close to “A plague on both their houses!”, but that’s another blog post in itself.

  4. January 8, 2009 4:56 pm

    So I was pretty equivocal (cowardly?) in my last post about the Gaza conflict (
    but I almost considered doing a highly opinionated, even righteously indignant post about this very topic – CUPE and the Israeli conflict. Censorship based on race (this screams out for italics) is not at all an appropriate response to the situation for all the reasons you’ve pointed out here. I might add another reason: this kind of collective punishment only contributes to the Us versus Them mentality that does so much to exacerbate the conflict. I might not feel strongly about what Canada should do, but I do feel quite strongly that knee-jerk, provocative responses are more destructive than constructive in this case, and everyone should take a step back and think through the likely consequences of their action before getting involved.


  1. Updates: Abousfian Abdelrazik, CUPE vs. Israel, and Wildfires Down Under « Canada’s World

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