Commentary  McGill should keep its ties with The Hebrew University

Exchange participants respond to calls condemning the academic partnership

In its March 28 editorial (“McGill should cut ties with The Hebrew University”), The McGill Daily called for an end to McGill’s partnership with The Hebrew University. The editorial focused on the collaborative program between the human rights centres at the universities’ respective Faculties of Law. The editorial was one in a number of publicly-voiced comments raised in advance of the launch of the program. As participants having recently returned from our trip to Jerusalem with the program, we would like to respond and to share our thoughts on the benefits, richness, and importance of it .

To suggest that it is possible to study human rights in Israel and avoid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nonsensical. The Daily’s editorial expressed concern over the absence of the occupation, the settlements, and the restrictions on Palestinians in the program description. In fact, the program schedule included a tour of East Jerusalem, where we saw the wall snake its way around settlements, cut through Palestinian-owned olive fields, and tower over divided communities. We also paid a visit to Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a Jewish-Palestinian cooperative village. A majority of the McGill students also went to Hebron in the West Bank with the Ramallah-based NGO, Al-Haq. More generally, the conflict and key human rights issues that related to Palestinians informed classroom discussion and coursework on a regular basis. To suggest that there was an agenda to whitewash the conflict or minimize its impact is completely baseless; while it may not have been the focus of the program, it came up during relevant discussion in a natural and organic way.

At the same time, it is legitimate to study diversity in Israel and not focus exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A key element of the program was gaining awareness of the dire situation of the massive migrant community in Israel, many of whom fled war in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The migrants who are able to enter the country and resist deportation live precariously and are rarely given refugee status or residency. We also visited destitute Bedouin villages in the Negev, where basic services such as water and electricity are lacking and economic opportunities are minimal. There is no question that the conflict often informs the approach taken by the Israeli government to many of these groups. Still, it would be a serious disservice to the cause of human rights to ignore these groups and focus primarily on the conflict.

Finally, The Daily was particularly troubled by Mcgill’s collaboration with The Hebrew University specifically, claiming that the partnership could contribute indirectly to ongoing injustice. We disagree; we found The Hebrew University to be a hub of academic freedom characterized by a plurality of critical voices. Even if one were to accept The Daily’s claims about The Hebrew University, we maintain that the program is worth continuing.  We consider The Daily’s proposal to be a disproportionate response. It overlooked the benefits of dialogue, frank discussion, and exposure to serious human rights issues.

The program in general did what it should: it gave us a new context in which our legal studies could be deepened and perhaps fundamentally changed by what we saw, shared, and absorbed. If the program were cancelled, this rich experience would not have been available to us. While the program had its imperfections, it also had great successes and was an opportunity that should be available to others.

Written by Emilie Blanchard, Eloge Butera, Will Colish, Chiara Fish, Miatta Gorvie, Daniel Haboucha, and Farid Muttalib, students at the Faculty of Law