Commentary | CUPE boycott brings bigotry to academia

Meet Sid Ryan, the firecracker leader of the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). He has used this role as a bully pulpit to rant and roar not just about labour issues, but also about his native Ireland, and, for some reason, Israel. Through his activism, Ryan has impressed many by accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of convincing cynical non-believers like me that obsessive criticism of Israel is, in fact, anti-Semitism.

Let’s start in 2006, when he led CUPE in adopting a resolution calling for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. The Canadian Arab Federation was so impressed that they gave him their Social Justice Award for 2006. The National Post was so impressed they gave him the title “disgrace and embarrassment.”

After Lebanon, the Middle East stayed fairly quiet and so, impressively, did Ryan. But, in case you just crawled out of the womb and the doctor didn’t tell you, the rivalry in the region heated up this winter as Israel responded to Hamas rockets with an air and ground incursion into Gaza. So on January 5, apparently concerned that not enough people were making fools of themselves, Ryan boldly declared that, “In response to an appeal from the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, we are ready to say Israeli academics should not be on our campuses unless they explicitly condemn the University bombing and the assault on Gaza in general.”

I don’t have enough space to detail everything wrong with this proposal, so let’s run through the basics. Ryan claims it is in response to the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza, which Israel alleges was being used by Hamas. Yet no matter your view on the act itself, and the war in general, there are some things that should go without saying: Israeli academics don’t set policy, so the ban makes no sense; it hurts academia to limit the free exchange of ideas and speech; and it sets a dangerous precedent to declare that university hiring will be based on explicitly expressed political views.

But let’s pretend for a minute we’re in some alternate dimension where Ryan’s proposal is actually reasonable. In that case, he is guilty of prejudice. He claims he is responding to a war. But American-led forces were responsible for more than 9,000 civilians deaths in the first two years of the Iraq war. Where is the ban on their academics? What about a ban on scholars from the Sudan, whose president is committing genocide. Or Iran, whose president would like to? No, Mr. Ryan is not concerned with states at war; he is concerned with the Jewish state at war.

I know, I know – not all Israeli academics are Jewish, so how can this be called bigotry against Jews? For one thing, since Ryan is convinced Israel is a Nazi-like state – though he did apologize for revealing this view in public – which confines its non-Jewish inhabitants to only the lowest echelons of society, I’m not sure if he even knows there are non-Jewish academics. And if he does, he likely views them as collateral damage. Israel is, inescapably, a Jewish state. And applying an unfair double standard to Israel, consciously or not, by punishing its academics for actions that other states have committed, often to a greater extent, is anti-Semitic.

Ryan’s proposal goes beyond the absurd, and into the realm of bigotry. The situation would be hilarious – if it wasn’t so incredibly frightening.

Mookie Kideckel is a U1 Political Science and History student. Send all your thoughts on Semitism to mookie.kideckel@mail.mcgill.ca.


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