| Knowledge cannot be advanced in an environment where people are afraid to present evidence or research or new ways of thinking that challenge existing norms writes Laurie Adkin Photo by Jeffrey BeallFlickr | MR Online Knowledge cannot be advanced in an environment where people are afraid to present evidence or research or new ways of thinking that challenge existing norms, writes Laurie Adkin. (Photo: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr)

Israel lobby and its media enablers threatening academic freedom on campus

Originally published: Canadian Dimension on February 21, 2024 by Laurie E. Adkin (more by Canadian Dimension)  | (Posted Feb 24, 2024)

In a recent article entitled “Federal funding supported academic conference with speakers who celebrated Hamas attack” (National Post, February 15, 2024), reporter Ari Blaff earns his pay by framing the Liberal government as the direct funder of Postmedia’s bête noir, academic programs that teach concepts like “racial capitalism,” and characterizing academics who oppose Zionism as supporters of terrorism. He should probably get a bonus for squeezing so much far-right misinformation into one story. The article has also been disseminated by other far-right media in Canada, including the Western Standard and Rebel Media.

In his story about a conference called “Mediations of Racial Capitalism,” being held at the University of Alberta this month, Blaff first performs the well-used trick of making readers think that the Canadian government decides which grants are approved by federal funding agencies. No doubt, Mr. Blaff knows this is false, but the equation of “federal funding” with the Liberal government serves his purpose (or, at least, the purpose of his bosses and of Pierre Poilievre). As the SSHRC spokesperson explains in a statement carefully positioned far down in the text of Blaff’s story, grant decisions are made by committees of academics who review and rank each application on its academic merits. The Government of Canada has nothing to do with the allocation of funding beyond the creation of envelopes targeting particular themes. It would be gross political interference in the integrity and independence of scholarly research were ministers to involve themselves in such vetting processes.

The second trick is to use the voice of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) to characterize the academics speaking at the conference as antisemitic and as supporters of “terrorism.” Readers are told nothing about the role of CIJA in Canada or its ties to the Israeli government. The antisemitism accusation is supported by the selective use of quotations taken out of their contexts and the omission of any counter-interpretation of the work of these academics. No one would call this journalism, but it is the kind of propaganda regularly churned out by Postmedia.

Blaff scores another point for his team by linking the SSHRC funding for the Mediations of Racial Capitalism conference to the Liberal government’s funding of the Community Media Advocacy Centre (CMAC) in 2021 for an anti-racism campaign which, when implemented, included the characterisation of Zionism as colonialism and anti-Arab racism. Statements made by a CMAC advisor (Laith Marouf) were labelled antisemitic by Zionist organizations and politicians who pressured the Canadian government to demand the repayment of the initial funding. Blaff presents these accusations as being factual, despite knowing that they remain strongly contested (for example, he says that Marouf was “found to have made several antisemitic posts online”). Why does he do this? To be able to assert that the Liberal government continues to fund antisemitic groups despite having promised not to do so. And to paint both events with the same brush, thereby further hammering the controversial claim that the Mediations conference platformed antisemitism.

Blaff contacted the public affairs unit at the University of Alberta to ask if they knew what kind of conference the university was hosting. Having seen the questions he sent to the conference organizers I can imagine how Blaff’s questions to public affairs were formulated—something along the lines of “Are you aware that your institution is platforming antisemites and promoters of terrorism?”

The university’s response is revealing of how little current administrators understand academic freedom or how unwilling they are to explain this freedom to the public.

A spokesperson for the University of Alberta underscored that the school had “not organized this event,” and urged the Post to “contact the event organizers directly for additional information about the event.” “We have noted that the organizers have indicated some U of A entities on their ‘sponsors’ webpage. We’ve reached out to event organizers for clarity and have not yet received a response,” Michael Brown, a university spokesman said in a statement.

As Blaff picks up, this response—which essentially dissociates the university (leaders) from the event—is very similar to the executive’s earlier response to a vigil for the victims of genocide in Gaza that was organized by a student’s group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). On that occasion, President Flanagan took pains to emphasize that SJP was in no way endorsed by “the university” and was indeed viewed as a potential security threat to “the university community.”

The response that academics have the right to expect from administrators is a defence of academic freedom. It is scholars themselves who adjudicate the worthiness of their peers’ research for publication or their conference proposals for funding. It is not the prerogative of administrators, governments, or politicians to decide what work should be published or presented at conferences. CIJA may equate criticism of Israel or the characterization of Israel’s assault on Gaza as genocide with antisemitism, but scholars who specialize in the history of the Middle East, or of the Holocaust, or any related subject are entitled to reject such linkages. Neither CIJA nor the Government of Canada is entitled to impose a singular interpretation of this conflict on everyone else. If that day comes, democracy will be a distant memory.

Universities must be places where criticisms of official discourses or dominant worldviews can be voiced, where complexity can get a hearing, and where views that may be offensive to specific groups or individuals can be expressed—provided these do not incite hatred of any group. Knowledge and the search for truth cannot be advanced in an environment where people are afraid to present evidence or research or new ways of thinking that challenge existing norms. This is why “academic freedom” is essential to the mission of universities—and to the public interest.

Remember that, back in spring 2018, the fossil fuel industry and its associates virulently protested the decision of the Senate of the University of Alberta to award an honorary doctorate to environmentalist David Suzuki. The university’s president at the time, Dr. David Turpin, defended the Senate’s decision, arguing:

We will stand by our decision because our reputation as a university—an institution founded on the principles of freedom of inquiry, academic integrity, and independence—depends on it. Universities must not be afraid of controversy. Instead, we must be its champion. Stifle controversy and you also stifle the pursuit of knowledge, the generation of ideas, and the discovery of new truths. Take uncomfortable ideas, debate, and conflict out of the university and its fundamental role in society disappears.

Given its responses, to date, to Zionist attacks on academics and students who have raised their voices to protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory by the State of Israel and that state’s genocidal response to the Hamas offensive of October 7, and who seek to bring historical knowledge to bear on current framings of this conflict, we are entitled to ask whether the current executive leadership of the University of Alberta would have taken the same stance as President Turpin in April 2018. Or would it have capitulated to threats of defunding from fossil fuel industry-affiliated business owners and politicians?

The next time the National Post or another organization comes calling, with its accusatory (even slanderous) “questions,” university spokespersons should take the opportunity to explain what academic freedom means, and why they will vigorously defend it. In the meantime, university leaders might do some thinking about how their own priorities and actions either reproduce or resist racial capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Addendum: At the time of writing, the author had not seen Marouf’s tweets (his account was suspended by X), only the description of his statements by David Mastracci in the linked article. Having subsequently seen the Marouf posts quoted in this National Observer article of August 22, 2022, she agrees that they contain crude, racist, and even violent language. The equivalence that Blaff constructs between the views of speakers at the Mediations conference and the views of Marouf is, however, false. —February 23, 2024

Laurie E. Adkin is Professor Emerita in the Department of Political Science, University of Alberta.

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