Here’s an opinion piece published on the Toronto Star website:
Middle East conference anything but academic
by Na’ama Carmi
June 30, 2009
I hesitated whether to accept the invitation to participate in the conference at York University on “Models of Statehood in Israel/Palestine.”
Such conferences, even when organized with goodwill, are frequently hijacked and become anti-Israeli events. However, the dilemma is always whether to leave the floor only to the most extreme and one-sided views, or to try to bring a different voice, one that attempts to display the complexity of the situation and presents a perspective that would not be presented if one were to stay away.
Reaction to the pressure put on the conference and the Jewish Defense League’s (JDL) activity against it, and the desire to present such a voice seemed good reasons to take part, and not to surrender to attempts to silence debate and curb academic freedom.
Although the extreme manner in which they were presented was sometimes hard to hear, I was not surprised by the same Palestinian arguments that have been around for decades.
Thus, we heard that Israel is a racist, apartheid state; that the Palestinians are the “indigenous” and Zionists the colonials; that the only reason for the unwillingness of Jewish Israelis to give up a Jewish national state is their unwillingness to surrender power and privileges; and that Zionism has an inherent tendency toward war crimes.
Unfortunately, this was not accompanied with introspection or self-criticism by the Palestinians. Hamas was not mentioned at all. Apparently it does not exist in the virtual map of the Palestinian participants. Another “marginal” phenomenon that disappeared as if it did not exist is the lethal Palestinian terror against Israeli citizens.
But if all this was quite an expected scenario, not in my worst dreams did I imagine an atmosphere that was totally incompatible with academic discourse. The university rightly resisted outside pressures aimed at silencing the conference. But there were attempts at the conference itself to silence unpopular views.
A hostile atmosphere toward people with different views generally, and Jewish-Zionist Israelis in particular, was created. Anyone who challenged the Palestinian perspective was intimidated or even labelled a racist. The audience vocally applauded those whose views it approved. At times, those presenting a different view were subject to abuse and ridicule.
For me, this reached an extreme when one interlocutor, rather than debating the substantive arguments I presented, questioned my psychological state. And all of this without any apparent attempt by the organizers to stop it. Never before in my whole academic career have I encountered the rudeness that I experienced at this conference.
Academic discourse implies in-depth analysis of issues, even loaded ones, theorizing and making well-based arguments. Reasoned criticism is a first-degree instrument for the advancement of academic knowledge. Ad-hominem offence and the silencing of unpopular views are its antithesis. If one has good arguments, one doesn’t need to resort to such tactics. As an Israeli politician once reputedly wrote on the side of his written text: “Here the argument is weak, raise your voice.”
After my presentation, people approached me to thank me for presenting an alternative view. They admitted that in the prevailing atmosphere they were deterred from stepping forward and expressing a different voice. This is a disgrace for the academic host of this conference. I’d very much want to believe that the organizers were only naive. It’s more difficult to accept that there was no agenda, explicit or hidden, to this conference
The Palestinians’ pain and rage are understandable. But what happened at York University reflects a worrying, dangerous and, unfortunately, not uncommon pattern. Persons who demand the protection of human rights abandon them and display little tolerance for the views of others when they have the power to marginalize them. This provides food for thought. Surely such tolerance would be a sine qua non in the liberal democratic state that many participants in the conference purport to support.
The universities that sponsored this conference should give themselves an accounting. While the JDL demonstrated outside the campus, a pro-Palestinian demonstration took place inside the conference itself, from the floor, under an academic disguise.
This was not an academic conference, but an “academic” version of Durban.
Na’ama Carmi teaches at the faculty of law of Haifa University, Israel.