December 20, 2010
To: Jim Turk, Executive Director
Canadian Association of University Teachers
Henry Mandelbaum, Executive Director
The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
We are writing with regard to Jenny Peto, a student at OISE whose masters’ thesis was recently attacked in the Ontario Legislature, after articles about it appeared in both the National Post and the Toronto Star.
We do not feel that it is appropriate for our committee to comment on the work of Ms. Peto. That was the job of her thesis committee, and they saw fit to grant her a Masters’ degree for it. For members of the Ontario Legislature to subsequently speak publicly against her thesis—made even more offensive by the fact that the critics proudly announced that they hadn’t read it—is both outrageous and a dangerous assault on academic freedom.
For the past year, our committee has actively been following the work of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA), a voluntary grouping of Parliamentarians that met in Ottawa as a follow-up to the International Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (ICCA) that had previously met in London, UK. From the outset, it was clear from both the CPCCA website and the “London Declaration on Combatting Anti-Semitism” that these MPs accepted the argument that criticism of Israel is de facto a form of anti-Semitism and should be chargeable under hate crime legislation. To date, however, the Coalition has not submitted its report to the government. However, in November, the ICCA held another closed meeting in Ottawa (similar to the earlier one in London), and subsequently issued a document called the “Ottawa Protocol.” Both the work of the CPCCA and the Ottawa Protocol make clear their agenda: to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include opposition to the actions of the Israeli state, to change the way data are gathered with regard to anti-Semitism in Canada and around the world, and to focus on supposed anti-Semitism on campuses across the country.
The reason for the focus on campuses is not surprising – it is here that young people often challenge traditional values; it is here that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel has gradually been taking hold; it is here that both faculty and students may look beneath the rhetoric for the reality of what is taking place in the Middle East. It is certainly not because anti-Semitism is actually increasing on Canadian campuses. Not a single Canadian university president who appeared as a witness before the CPCCA last year indicated that this was the case.
If this had been the first time the Ontario Legislature had intervened with regard to a campus issue it would be problematic, but—as you certainly know—this is the second time this year that MPPs have made public statements that pertain to campus activities, the earlier intervention having been made last February when the Legislature condemned Israeli Apartheid Week.
We could not find any response to the Peto incident on your website. This despite the fact that both statements in the Ontario Legislature are clearly attempts to accomplish what has not yet been achieved in law: to shut down legitimate debate about the ongoing actions of the State of Israel by creating a “chill” on campuses across the country. What faculty member or graduate student is going to risk their career by taking on issues that might end up being challenged by government officials?
We hope you will publicly speak out to protect the rapid erosion of academic freedom and free speech on campuses across the country, and will mobilize your membership to respond as well. And please feel free to contact us should you require further information with regard to this or other related issues. We would certainly be happy to write a short piece for the CAUT Bulletin to help your members get a better handle on the background to this case, and its serious implications for faculty.
Co-chair, Seriously Free Speech Committee
c.c. Jenny Peto
Sheryl Nestle, OISE
Cheryl Misak, Provost, University of Toronto