When Bombs Fall on Distant Ivory Towers
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.