We are Jewish and non-Jewish faculty members at York University in Toronto who are deeply troubled by the threats to freedom of expression that have appeared on our campus. These threats promised and enacted the withdrawal of donor funding for students in reaction to a painting (wrongly labelled a “mural”) that hangs in an area of the Student Centre transited primarily by students. Thanks to Paul Bronfman, this painting has gained worldwide prominence.
The painting, which was chosen by a university jury, depicts the back a young Palestinian who is looking at an Israeli bulldozer destroying an olive tree and pondering whether to throw the rocks [they are] holding in their hands. It conveys one artist’s response to the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the feeling that there is no end in sight. The issue is not whether we like or approve of the painting. Indeed, controversies around freedom of expression often concern ideas which we disagree with, ideas that make us feel uncomfortable, or ideas that we would prefer not to see. Legal limits on freedom of expression are acceptable only in relation to hate speech or calls for human rights abuse. Nothing in this painting conforms to that definition; it depicts an individual opposing a military force invading their community and destroying its land. Nothing in this painting should make anyone in the York campus feel unsafe.
There are many people in the Jewish community in Canada who believe that all people should be accorded respect and basic human rights, and that safety, self-determination, and justice should apply to all. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of racism are all too real and must be tackled head on. But it is not credible to label all expressions of concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “hate speech” or “anti-Semitic.” This tired alibi for attempting to censor a painting that made some people feel uncomfortable is speech suppression and intolerance, which has no place in a university. Furthermore, York has a notable history of mounting public art by students which has greatly contributed to the vitality of the campus. We strongly urge the university to maintain and protect the public spaces and traditions of student and faculty engagements that have so enriched this university.
We applaud that in its response the university “remains firmly committed to the values of freedom of expression, open dialogue, and constructive discussion” and we certainly “must do everything we can to ensure that all of our students feel comfortable and safe on campus.” This is not, however, a reason to narrow the scope for free expression, political activism, or public art on campus. In this regard, we note with grave concern that, as reported in the media, the university said it has “consulted widely with experts” and concluded that it “cannot compel its (the painting’s) removal.” President Mamdouh Shoukri informs us that there will be a review of regulations regarding student groups and the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Does this announcement imply that the university might seek to widen its powers so that in the future it can compel the suppression of “unsafe” artistic and political expression in the name of “inclusion” and “safety”? The last sentence in Shoukri’s statement,
“we will not tolerate actions and behaviours that are contrary to our values” seems to contradict his call for tolerance.
Finally, there are lessons about reliance on philanthropic funding in universities. Mr. Bronfman has provided a powerful argument for why Canadian universities should be publicly funded and not be dependent on the goodwill and personal agendas of the affluent in our society. We must continue to demand adequate public funding for public universities to preserve them as spaces for open expression, thought, and civic debate.