Commentary  A lack of diverse opinions

McGill Hebrew University Exchange Participants respond to the partnership

McGill and Hebrew University’s Summer Program partnership in Human Rights in Jerusalem drew criticism from students supportive of a boycott of Israeli educational institutions. A group of students returning from the program published an article in The Daily on September 1 entitled “McGill should keep its ties with The Hebrew University,” which argued that the program should be continued as part of the ongoing partnership between McGill and Hebrew University. We would like to continue this discussion, underlining the importance of creating a tolerant and inclusive environment as the program moves forward.

We chose to participate in this program because of a belief that, without dialogue and engagement, no progress will be made in addressing human rights violations that occur daily around the world, including in the Palestinian Territories.  Furthermore, we feel that academic institutions are an environment where freedom of expression should be tolerated and even encouraged.

Our experience in Jerusalem demonstrated a desire – on the part of the program planners – to expose the participants to a diversity of viewpoints. While in Israel, we discussed issues of diversity and human rights with Eritrean refugees, government officials, and Bedouin activists.

In some ways, however, the program did not entirely live up to its vision of diversity.

The welcoming remarks were made by the directors of the participating human rights centres and by the Canadian ambassador, but also by Daniel Taub, Israeli ambassador to the U.K. While the other speakers referenced human rights and academic exchange, Taub delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sweepingly characterizing Palestinian culture and its heroes as violent. Evidently, Taub is oblivious to the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and the images of cartoonist Naji al-Ali. In the context of promoting diversity, how can an entire culture be characterized as violent? This message did not set a tolerant tone for the program.
During a visit to Neve Shalom, an intentional community of Jewish and Palestinian families, two community educators and residents presented a viewpoint many felt was radical in its support of a single secular democratic state as a solution to the conflict.
The program coordinators responded to this visit by scheduling a seminar, inviting the dean of the law faculty of the Hebrew University to speak on the subject of Israel as a “Jewish and Democratic state.” The relationship between this subject and the broader theme of the program – diversity and human rights – was unclear. Rather, the seminar was explicitly framed as a response to the ideas presented by the Neve Shalom community, which were too quickly characterized as unrealistic in their divergence from the mainstream narrative, undermining the legitimacy of this alternative community’s message.

The Neve Shalom visit was further marred by its characterization as “a mistake” by Danny Evron, director of the Minerva Centre for Human Rights at the Hebrew University. Why characterize this visit as a mistake? Should such an alternative viewpoint not be heard? In making this characterization, Evron implied that not all viewpoints are welcome, and that a certain degree of divergence from the mainstream has no place in such an environment. This does not remain true to the notion of diversity nor to the freedom of expression that the Hebrew University should encourage.

Ultimately, this academic program, in order to maintain its own diversity, must encourage a wide spectrum of opinions while acknowledging that, in such a context, there may be diverging viewpoints.

Molly Joeck and Éloïse Ouellet-Décoste are both students in the McGill University Faculty of Law.