A panel entitled “Zionism in Academia” discussed on Tuesday that academia in North America is complicit in privileging Zionist discourses, rendering the study, analysis, and discussion of Palestine invisible. Facilitated by Michelle Hartman, professor of Arabic Literature at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill, the panel – held as part of Israeli Apartheid Week – drew a crowd of fifty people.
The panel was composed of Mohsen al Attar, a visiting professor and human rights lawyer, and Douglas Smith, a PhD student who was a member of Tadamon!, a Montreal-based collective working in solidarity with struggles for self-determination, equality, and justice in the Middle East.
“I’m not interested in the question of if Zionism holds a privileged place within the environment of North American universities, because I think that it does. I don’t think that it is a question whether or not Palestine is colonized, because I think that it is,” Hartman said in her introduction to the panel.
“In many university spaces, to say this is not accepted,” she added. Instead, Hartman continued, the panel would focus on the way in which this privilege manifests itself.
Hartman told the audience that it had been hard to find people to talk at the event, as many people that she had approached didn’t want to talk about these issues in public.
Hartman herself was on the receiving end of political smearing at McGill in February, when her office door was defaced with Zionist slogans.
In 2009, Hartman, along with 81 other Montreal CEGEP and university professors, signed an open letter published in Le Devoir in the wake of the Israeli bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza.
The letter, which was in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, called for academics around the world to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and an ending of all economic relations between Canada and Israel.
“We call on the Harper government to re-evaluate its policies and to unequivocally condemn the Israeli siege and assault on Gaza, which constitute serious violations of international and humanitarian law,” the letter read. “We further demand that the Israeli government immediately cease its violence,” it said.
Hartman previously had a copy of this letter posted on her door. Sometime between the evening of February 4 and the early morning of February 5, slogans stating that Hartman was a “lover of terrorists,” and that “Israel has been a state for 1,200 years,” were scrawled across her door.
“I don’t feel personally threatened. I see this rather as a way to silence the issue. My understanding of that defacing is in the context, not necessarily particularly here, but in a broader context of silencing of people on university campuses who talk about the issue of Palestine and Palestinians,” Hartman told The Daily shortly after the incident.
The incident was downplayed by her department, and her colleagues came to a consensus not to say anything publicly about it. Hartman, however, felt that it would have been better to issue a public statement about it.
Hartman said during the panel that many of her colleagues, but particularly students, often do not feel that they are able to speak about the question of Palestine in many places within the university, especially in classrooms.
A member of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill (SPHR), a group that advocates for the rights of the Palestinian people, and organizer of the conference, told The Daily that at McGill, “Zionist discourse has so ingrained itself in the university, you aren’t free to use the ‘anti’ [Zionism] discourse.”
Another SPHR member told The Daily that they actively try to hide their political ideas in their classes in fear of the consequences of voicing them. “People are afraid of talking about it more than any other issue,” they said.
Adrienne Hurley, a professor in East Asian studies who also signed the open letter, asserted to The Daily that McGill had taken a particularly aggressive stance against BDS.
“You have a university that has taken a side, and this is a really clear side. You have these slogans written that echo the political sentiment of the administration, and that specificity is important, ” she said.
Hurley speculated that had a similar political action been carried out in another department, the response would have been much different.
Al Attar, however, said during the panel discussion that the issue of Zionism, which as an idea contains many contradictions, is often oversimplified, and that academics self-censor as a direct consequence of irrational fears that stem from such oversimplification.
“Zionism is not overrepresented in academia, but oversimplification gives rise to the illusion of an overrepresentation of Zionism, and this gives rise to allegations of anti-semitism,” he said.
Smith outlined various cases across Canada and the U.S. where anti-Zionist voices had been silenced.
For instance, in February, around the same time that Hartman’s door was vandalized, New York City officials threatened to cut funding to Brooklyn College because the school’s political science department sponsored an event featuring Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, both of whom are advocates of BDS. Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Guardian that this type of action was a threat to academic freedom.
Some professors believe that what is allowed to be said on campus has changed as McGill moves toward funding more programs through donors. Abby Lippman, a professor in Epidemiology, told The Daily by phone that “the way you have to go for funding has changed a lot over the years. That has changed the sort of research people can do.”