SFSC Letter: Calls on University of Windsor president to support free speech

To Dr. Alan Wildeman, President, University of Windsor

I am writing on behalf of the Seriously Free Speech Committee to express our grave concern over your responses to the recent referendum in which a majority of students at the University of Windsor supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

We are an organization formed to defend the right of free speech on the subject of Palestine and Israel. We believe that there is a concerted effort both in Canada and internationally to suppress open discussion on the subject of the Palestine/Israel conflict. This effort manifests itself in the media, in educational institutions, and in government, and includes attempts to criminalize or otherwise stigmatize criticism of Israel. We are dedicated to responding to this campaign by defending the principles of free speech and believe that a full and open debate in all these arenas is necessary to achieve a just solution. We reject all forms of hate speech, including antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism.

We believe that political criticism of Israel’s policies and actions, including characterizing it as an “apartheid state” or campaigning for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, is legitimate political speech, the expression of which must be protected. Such speech does not constitute antisemitism.

From the public statement you issued after the referendum, it appears that you have made a fundamental error in conflating criticism of the state of Israel’s actions with antisemitism in which prejudice, discrimination and hatred is targeted at Jewish people. We object to your attempt to intimidate students by claiming that supporting BDS campaign could compromise academic freedom. Would you have stood in the way of students and faculty who boycotted South Africa to support the human rights of the black South African population?

Of even more concern to our organization was your statement that some Jewish students now feel unsafe on the campus or feel unwelcome because a referendum was held to support the rights of Palestinians. Again, you appear to make a fundamental error assuming that political criticism of the state of Israel is criticism of Jewish people all over the world. Israel does not represent all Jews. Not all Jews support a zionist state. Israel and Jews are not one and the same. If some Jewish students insist that any criticism of Israel makes them feel unsafe, then the University of Windsor should rise to the challenge of educating that student about the historical realities in the Middle East and supporting that student to overcame his or her irrational fears. There’s no question that if a Jewish student experienced prejudice or hatred because of his or her religion, we would actively encourage your university’s efforts to eliminate that racism, to determine why antisemtism exists on campus, and what can be done to eliminate it. However, we must reiterate, criticizing the State of Israel and policies that deny the rights of Palestinians is not antisemitism.

We also urge your university to be vigilant about expressions of Islamophobia. The letter written by businessman Robert Spencer, who threatened to withdraw his $500,000 support to the University of Windsor over the BDS referendum, displayed shocking evidence of prejudice and contempt for Muslims when he said: “I am reasonably certain that the majority, if not all, of this small percentage of the student body are of the Muslim faith, which promotes violence and hatred toward the Jews in the Middle East. … What is next? Christian students, too, will feel unsafe on campus because of this intolerant group?”

We are dismayed that you have thus far failed as far as we are aware to express your misgivings about such destructive stereotypes. Given the sentiments expressed Mr. Spencer expressed, we think it is important for you to investigate whether similar views are shared on your campus, and if so, to engage in a broad educational campaign to eliminate these racist views that stand in the way of the kind of intellectual exploration and engagement that is so important for a university to foster.

We call on you to actively support a climate that allows the free expression of views that support Palestinian rights as much as support for the state of Israel.

Sincerely yours

Anne Roberts
on behalf of the Seriously Free Speech Committee

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