Antisemitic Mural At York University: Protest or Acquiesce?

Jan 8, 2016 | Antisemitism, Campus

By Sheri Oz

The JDL is planning a protest against the antisemitic mural at York University. And a week ago, I was asked by a group fighting defamation of Israel on North American campuses to go to the site of the mural and call the police to report it as hate “speech”. I am glad I went to York with the goal of learning more about the issue before shooting off my mouth to the cops.

I must admit that when I got to York, I had a fairly militant attitude – I had been influenced by the “how-could-they” crowd who have accused Hillel leaders of being cowards. For example, Pamela Geller wrote a scathing article on Hillel’s decision not to make a big thing of if:

Hillel proves yet again what an utterly worthless organization it has become in the face of growing hostility and flagrant antisemitism on college campuses. These Jewish groups say nothing in the face of annihilationists and calls for genocide, but freely criticize me for standing against it.

I have great respect for Geller and tended to accept her version without question. I went to York to look for the horrid mural and to challenge Hillel people for their acquiescence. I had seen the mural online and I fully expected to be overwhelmed by the image when faced with it “in person”. It made me laugh, therefore, when, hard as I looked, I found Hillel’s office and nary a sign of the offensive mural. That softened my approach, thank goodness, and I was ready to interview rather than challenge the Jewish student leaders I met there.

I learned that the mural in question won second place in an art competition run by the Student Union in 2013 and was 1 of 9 selected. It is important to understand that the Student Union operates independently of York University administration. If the Union does not break any laws, then the administration has no means or reason to interfere in its activities. This leaves two ways to approach the mural issue: If it is an example of hate speech, then the police can be involved. And if it does not fall under the legal category of hate speech what, then, is the best manner by which to deal with the offensive image?

The Question of Hate Speech

The CBC clarified the issue of criminal hate speech (318 and 319 of the Criminal Code) in a 2011 article:

The Criminal Code of Canada says a hate crime is committed to intimidate, harm or terrify not only a person, but an entire group of people to which the victim belongs. It applies when the victims are targeted for who they are, not because of anything they have done, and can involve intimidation, harassment, physical force or threat of physical force against a person, a group or a property.

In Canada it’s also a crime to incite hatred. Under Section 318 of the Criminal Code, it is a criminal act to “advocate or promote genocide” — to call for, support, encourage or argue for the killing of members of a group based on colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.

Therefore, in order for the mural to be considered an example of hate speech it would need to be deemed intending to intimidate, harm or terrify an entire group of people – Jews or Israelis in this case – and that the “accused intentionally acted out of hatred”. Furthermore, the legal requirement is that a reasonable person would find the material intending to incite harm to the group in question.

The informal survey I describe below shows that this requirement regarding the “reasonable person” is not likely to be upheld and, therefore, police would potentially feel more irritated than anything else by being called out to campus. I also think it would be hard to prove that hatred motivated either the artist or the competition selection committee.

There are two problems with defining this legally as antisemitic hate speech:

  1. Other than being able to clearly identify the main character as Palestinian (the kfiyah and the flag fringe on his scarf), nobody but the informed observer would recognize the symbols of terrorism against Israel contained within this mural.
  2. Because the other symbols of terrorism are not recognized by the great majority of Canadians (and perhaps even Jews and some Israelis), it could perhaps be argued that protesting this mural constitutes discrimination against Palestinians.

Read more here.

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