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Academic freedom at UBC threatened by false allegations of anti-semitism PDF Print E-mail
Feb 12, 2020 at 12:00 AM


In 2018, six members of the UBC community were the subjects of an investigation based on allegations that they had engaged in antisemitic behaviour after they declared their opposition to holding the Geography Department’s year-end party at Hillel UBC. 

Their email comments explaining this opposition became the subject of a six-month investigation that ended with an outside investigator finding there had been no expression of antisemitism. Although the 52-page report was completed in October 2018, UBC officials have refused to publicly acknowledge the fact that the case was dismissed. In addition, they have not released the investigator’s findings.

As members of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), a grassroots organization that opposes all forms of racism and advocates for justice and peace for all in Israel-Palestine, we provided support to the students who were the subject of the investigation. Because we were participants, we were given redacted copies of the investigator’s report. After careful consideration, we have become convinced that the findings in this investigation are too important to be kept secret.

The redacted version of the report that was provided to us by the University, which had the investigator’s recommendations blacked out, can be found here. IJV’s response to the UBC report can be found here. In order to respect the privacy of everyone, we have removed the names of the faculty and students who were involved. 

Here, in brief, is what happened. In February 2018, the executive members of the Geography Students Association (GSA) announced in a departmental email discussion group that they had decided to hold their annual party, the Geogala, at a rental space owned by UBC Hillel. After several professors and students objected to renting from Hillel because of its unqualified support of Israel despite the country’s horrific treatment of Palestinians, the GSA executive members chose another venue for the party.

The email discussion leading to the decision to change venues included reference to Hillel’s “ongoing role and politics,” mention of the “controversial nature of Hillel,” “being all too familiar with Hillel’s politics,” and the statement that “I found article …that outlines growing Zionism in organization (and its fervent opposition to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)”. 

Much of this is not contentious. Hillel’s website prominently declares that “Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work.” Hillel is so dedicated to supporting Israel that it proudly declares it will not host organizations, groups or speakers that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.

It was Hillel’s political stance that the Geography students and faculty were opposing when they made their critical comments. There was never any evidence that either these comments or the GSA decision to change venues had been motivated by hatred of Jews, which is the standard definition of antisemitism. Nevertheless, the local chapter of the pro-Israel group known as the Center for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) waded into the matter, responding to the decision to change the party venue by setting up a special website and launching a letter writing campaign targeting the UBC administration to take action against what they alleged to be a blatant instance of antisemitism at the University. It is no coincidence that CIJA is promoting a “new” definition of antisemitism which targets activists who criticize or organize against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. More on that below.

What happened next was that the Ubyssey reported in March 2018 that a UBC geography student, a member of Hillel, had filed a UBC Policy 3 complaint against certain members of the Geography Department faculty, alleging that the behaviour of those who had argued against holding the departmental party at Hillel constituted discrimination, harassment and antisemitism. UBC responded by appointing an outside lawyer, Lindsay M. Lyster, to investigate the charges. 

When Ms. Lyster issued the report of her investigation in October 2018, she found that there had been no violation of UBC’s Policy 3 and no expression of antisemitism on the part of the respondents. 

Ms. Lyster wrote that “The participants on the listserve were expressing their opinions about the advisability of the Geogala being held at Hillel House, in light of their understanding of Hillel House’s political opposition to the BDS movement. Expressing concern about an event being held at a location as a result of one’s understanding of the political beliefs of the operator of that location is not discrimination.” 

The students we represented were greatly relieved that the accusation of antisemitism was dismissed, but the process took a heavy toll on them. Both found that their academic work suffered during the six-month investigation. More than a year later, they continue to feel anxiety about the potential impact of having been accused of antisemitism on their future careers. They are also concerned about a wider chilling effect: that members of the UBC faculty might react to this investigation by steering clear of hard discussions around Israel/Palestine in order to avoid being accused of antisemitism.

Unfortunately, the situation that arose at UBC is far from unique. Internationally, pro-Israel campaigners are lobbying national, provincial and municipal governments as well as universities, school boards and police departments, to adopt CIJA’s “new” definition of antisemitism. Known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, it includes a list of 11 examples of antisemitism. Seven of these relate to Israel and/or Zionism. The campaigners hope that the IHRA definition will focus the conversation on instances mislabelled as antisemitism in order to discourage criticism of Israel’s egregious behaviour.

We agree with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which declared that the IHRA definition is “extremely vague, open to misinterpretation and a threat to freedom of speech because it conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism”. Independent Jewish Voices notes that the supporters of the IHRA definition are using society’s concern about real antisemitism to suppress criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights. In so doing they are actually undermining the fight against genuine antisemitism, which is increasing with the spread of the Alt-Right and white nationalism.

Regrettably, Canada’s Liberal government chose to include the IHRA definition in its anti-racism strategy adopted this past year. But when the IHRA definition was brought before Vancouver’s city council in July 2019, the council referred the matter to the city’s Racial and Ethno-Cultural Equity Committee, asking the committee to make recommendations on how to oppose all forms of racism, including antisemitism. Recently, the Calgary City Council was asked to simultaneously recognize January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day and adopt the IHRA definition, but the IHRA definition was deleted when the final version of the resolution was passed. (See item 10.1 in the November 18, 2019 Combined Meeting Minutes.) And most recently, when the IHRA definition was brought to the Montreal City Council, it generated sufficient opposition that demands were made to give the matter further study. Instead, the motion’s sponsor withdrew it altogether. 

We believe that it is legitimate to voice criticism of an organization that provides unqualified support to Israel and its mistreatment of the Palestinians. That graduate students at an institution like UBC were investigated for expressing such critical views constitutes a violation of the very fundamental purpose of the university.

In a time when concern for the plight of Palestinians suffering repression at the hands of Israel is growing dramatically, it is incumbent upon university officers and administrators to resist demands to investigate specious charges of antisemitism that are designed to suppress the expression of these legitimate concerns.

To support Independent Jewish Voices Canada, visit their Facebook page or contact them at vancouver@ijvcanada.org . To get in touch with the UBC chapter, contact independentjewishvoicesubc@gmail.com .

Sid Shniad is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. Paul Tetrault is a supporter of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

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