Experts weigh in on Paul Bronfman and the York mural controversy


In the wake of businessman Paul Bronfman’s decision to pull his financial support from York University over a controversial mural in the school’s student centre, The CJN asked seven experts to weigh in on the value of donors withdrawing funding from universities where Jewish students feel threatened and the State of Israel is routinely disparaged.

Here’s what they had to say.

Can we afford to be silent again? – Avi Benlolo, president and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center

Typically, most donors direct their funds to institutions that reflect their core life values. Institutions, especially in the educational, medical and scientific fields, traditionally function to advance humanity – the raison d’etre for their existence.

Today, however, Western democracies are engaged in an ideological struggle to defend the traditional Judeo-Christian norms which have defined our social contract for decades. The very civil rights institutions which defended us, and which we helped build, are turning against us because of malicious anti-Semitic campaigns.

Donors, therefore, are refocusing their monetary commitments by choice as they become educated about the radical shifts underway in our society. In the case of universities, endorsement of boycotts and divestments against Israel, coupled with a toxic environment typified by hate propaganda and reinforced by events labelling Israel an apartheid state (essentially calling Jews racists), along with unions, faculty and student groups that intimidate Jewish students, translate into a reality where it would be atypical for Jewish and non-Jewish donors to support this type of discrimination.

Pro-Palestinian students at York
Pro-Palestinian students at York

In the case of Paul Bronfman, a senior director of my institution, it was an instantaneous decision on his part once I reviewed the materials with him and educated him about the situation at York University. It’s his money and his right to choose whom to support.

Most donors who have pulled their money and affiliation from universities, and even law schools like Osgoode Hall, typically find these institutions and their leaders on the wrong side of history. Some large donors have frozen their gifts while others are contemplating removal of their family names from university programs and buildings. After all, the mural controversy is precedent setting. Who is to say that if you sponsor a building one day, that a swastika won’t hang there the next day?

The gifts lost by these institutions are in the millions when combined and represent a vote of non-confidence in their leadership. The echoes of the past scream at us to listen to the earth shaking again beneath our feet. Can we afford to be silent again?

The remedy is more speech, not enforced silence – Hart Schwartz, chair, JSpaceCanada

In a famous court decision, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Philanthropist Paul Bronfman is entitled to decide if, and where, he wants to donate money or film production equipment. It is unfortunate, however, that York University students that have had nothing to do with the infamous mural (including Jewish students in the film program) are hindered in their ability to constructively express themselves by the withdrawal of that generous support.

Bronfman’s donation could have been earmarked to fund a counter-mural, one that promotes dialogue or engagement between Jews and Arabs, or a film promoting bicultural schooling in Israel that builds bridges between the two, increasingly segregated, communities.

The mural in question

JSpaceCanada believes in constructive dialogue –  i.e., “more speech.”  Walking out and slamming doors is invariably counter-productive.

That’s why we oppose all forms of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, including so-called “partial” ones which also hurt the wrong target – Arab-Israeli and Palestinian workers dependent on jobs.

But, silence is also imposed when the Israeli government decides to cease engaging in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace negotiations, or through its thinly veiled attempts to “enforce silence” on Israeli NGOs that oppose settlement expansion and extremism.

The offending mural at York University was to be in place for two years. That time has passed. It is time for new art, whether it be a mural, a sculpture, a theatre production or a film. We can counter “falsehoods and fallacies” with more speech, not by abandoning the field.  Now, more than ever, York University students need to hear that there are many voices seeking to promote peace and dialogue and two states for two peoples, without demonizing and delegitimizing either community.

There must be spaces for Jewish students to not only flourish, but flourish Jewishly – Marc Newburgh, CEO, Hillel Ontario

Over the past six months, York University has been a spotlight issue for the Jewish community, recently raising the question about whether members of our community should withdraw their longtime support of this academic institution in protest. Is disengaging from a campus environment in which anti-Israel sentiment seems to be the norm and Jewish and pro-Israel students feel targeted an effective way to combat anti-Israel and anti-Semitic influences?

One thing remains obvious: we should not allow the influence of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic voices, loud and persistent as they may be, to create an environment of exclusion and division for students. As a community that invests so much in young adults, we must continue to ensure that there are spaces for Jewish students to not only flourish, but also flourish Jewishly.

Pro-Israel and anti-Israel demonstrators collide at York's Vari Hall
Pro-Israel and anti-Israel demonstrators collide at York’s Vari Hall FILE PHOTO

The heart of the problem lies not with the mural, which is a symptom of a larger issue. Rather, the root cause of what we are experiencing relative to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments at York University is part of a much greater structural and systemic problem with the student government. How is it possible for a student body as rich and diverse as the one at York University to be represented by the same group of anti-Israel individuals for nearly a decade? What needs to happen in order to challenge the status quo?

The answer to this question is two-fold. Firstly, York’s administration must take the necessary and long-overdue steps in order to guarantee that student elections are conducted fairly. Collecting fees for the student government as a component of tuition, the administration has an obligation to ensure transparency and due process. Secondly, as a community it is essential that we continue to encourage, support, and mobilize Jewish and other pro-Israel students to be advocates of change, to have their voices heard, and to challenge the status quo.

This approach has been tremendously successful when students have come together this year to defeat BDS at the University of Waterloo, three times at the University of Toronto, and most recently at McGill University.


How can you help? If you are a student, become active by joining your local Hillel student board, a pro-Israel group, and connecting with other student activists on campus. Hillel professionals are there to support you in writing op-eds to your campus newspaper, expressing your concerns to the university administration, and connecting you to other like-minded students. And if you are no longer a student, consider writing to your alma mater as a concerned alumnus and member of the community, and let them know that the status quo is unacceptable.

Differences aside, we must mobilize as a united Jewish community to support our students on campus. If not now, then when?

The Jewish community must not surrender our rightful place on campus – Judy Zelikovitz, vice-president, University and Local Partner Services, The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)

There is an ongoing debate over the efficacy of community members withdrawing their donation to a cause or organization in protest. Perhaps there is an overarching question worth asking: is it ever acceptable for a member of our community to be forced to choose between maintaining their affiliation with an institution and upholding their deepest convictions as a Jew?

The answer is clear: there can be no circumstance in which a stakeholder in a business, organization, or school feels their institution has become off-limits for Jews and Zionists. When it comes to York University, the Jewish community, including students and faculty members, must not surrender our rightful place on campus. The Jewish way is to stand our ground and unite as a community in support of one another.

How can our community offer its full support to Jewish students and faculty at York in order to reclaim the narrative, create a positive campus climate, and ultimately marginalize anti-Zionists? If we want to affect change, we must begin to provoke change from within. At York, the student government is disproportionately influenced by anti-Israel activists. This is outrageous, but expressing our outrage will do nothing to change the situation absent a strategic and long-term plan to mobilize Jewish and pro-Israel students to run for student government. At the same time, York must do more to exercise its responsibility to ensure due process, transparency, and free and fair student elections.

There are no easy solutions to this challenge, particularly because anti-Israel trends are constantly shifting on a campus-by-campus basis. But Jewish students are not alone on campus. CIJA and our on-campus partners at Hillel are working tirelessly to provide training, resources, grants, communications guidance, and emergency support for students fighting campus elections and countering anti-Israel slander. To this end, CIJA recently hired a full-time staff member dedicated to assisting Hillel and students to win student votes – with the recent victory against BDS at the University of Waterloo testifying to the effectiveness of this strategy.

I will close with a challenge to readers: though we may not be on campus, there is a role for each of us to support Jewish students. Sponsor a pro-Israel event at your alma mater through Hillel. Encourage a Jewish student to become politically active. and engage university administrators – offering criticism when deserved and praise when earned – to send the message that our community cares about campus.

The mainstreaming of anti-Jewish behaviours and the callous disregard of the concerns raised about them – Carl S. Ehrlich, director of  Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, York University

Divestment is in the air. Whether coming from radical student governments or faculty associations, anti-Israel initiatives implicitly supportive of a rejectionist Palestinian perspective have made life on many university campuses uncomfortable for countless Jewishly committed students and faculty, as well as for their allies.

But, two can play this game. And so we find recent examples of donors “divesting” themselves of their contributions to universities. The firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP has asked Harvard University Law School to redirect its $1 million (US) contribution after $500 was drawn from the fund to pay for pizza at a Justice for Palestine event that erroneously listed Milbank as a supporter. And, closer to home, Paul Bronfman has withdrawn his material and practical support from York University’s film program on account of the continued presence of an anti-Israel painting (or “mural”) in York’s Student Centre.

YU Divest at its Feb. 4 public rally FACEBOOK PHOTO
YU Divest at its Feb. 4 public rally FACEBOOK PHOTO

Following years of reported anti-Jewish agitation at York, the continued presence of the infamous mural is the proverbial last straw that led Bronfman to take this step. While one could wish that he had followed Milbank’s example by redirecting his support to helping sustain Jewish life and learning at York, thereby constructively providing help to those most desperately in need of community support, ultimately he should be able to do with his money as he pleases.

However, the York administration cannot accede to Bronfman’s demand that it take down the mural, for two reasons:

1. Donors have no direct say in university policy.

2. The Student Centre is student-run and the university has no jurisdiction over it. Although the university has issued statements on inclusion and diversity, and against academic boycotts, in spite of this one could wish that the administration would more strongly disavow the continued presence of what has become an anti-Jewish symbol, whether it was originally intended as such or not.


While critics have denounced the Milbank and Bronfman actions as assaults on academic freedom, this is not the core issue. Academic freedom is what allows professors to pursue their research wherever it takes them. This is not what is under discussion here. Rather, it is the mainstreaming of anti-Jewish behaviours and the callous disregard of the concerns raised about them. And it is in these areas that the students running the York University Student Centre and their supporters have shown their true colours.

Bronfman is correct in his interpretation of what leaving the mural in place means, and he is right to express his displeasure about this. Where I would disagree with him is in his abandonment of those who would gain the most from his support.

Refreshing signs of a different direction in dealing with hostile campuses and the functionaries who run them –Lawrence Hart, professor of medicine, McMaster University, former president, planning committee, McMaster Jewish Faculty Association 

While some would argue that the scourge of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) has lost momentum in recent years, there can be little doubt that its proponents have been victorious.  If nothing else, the mendacious refrain that equates Israel with apartheid – using IAW as its principal medium – has become embedded in the campus vernacular, thus providing sustenance to the shrill anti-Zionist diatribes that masquerade as scholarship in so many of our halls of higher learning.

It is not without design that IAW and the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel were spawned in the same year, 2005. As with the IAW campaign, and usually in lock-step with it, BDS organizers have targeted university campuses as particular gateways for spreading their toxic messaging and, in doing so, they have succeeded in fostering a divisive and inevitably hostile atmosphere for Jewish students and faculty.

And while recognizing that there have been instances where pushback against the anti-Israel onslaught has been met with success, it’s troubling to observe that, in general, attempts by campus groups and the organized Jewish community to counter IAW and BDS have been manifestly disappointing. The strategy has usually been low profile and defensive, playing by the rules, engaging university administrators who won’t listen or take action, pursuing dialogue and outreach that has proven to be futile, and avoiding engagement in the face of direct provocation (for example, when encountering venomous speakers or when subjected to the political theatre of mock checkpoints or simulated die-ins).

Paul Bronfman’s decision to withdraw his financial contribution to the Cinema and Media Arts Program at York University and Robert Lantos’ powerful letter to York’s president Mamdouh Shoukhri, in which he called York an “incubator of hate and violence against the Jewish people,” therefore come as refreshing signs of a different direction in dealing with hostile campuses and the functionaries who run them.


But inasmuch as these approaches are largely untested, and may yet trigger more backlash, they will have little impact unless other influencers – both Jewish and non-Jewish – lend their support to initiatives of this sort. It is only once we hear the voices, and observe the actions, of major donors to our schools of medicine, dentistry, business, law and pharmacy, as well as other major capital projects, that we may see university administrators sitting up and taking note. And it is only then that the really substantive conversations might begin – to bring an end to the abominations of IAW and BDS on our campuses.

‘Free speech’ is not a cover for the incitement of violence – Danielle Shachar, York University student 

Paul Bronfman’s principled decision to pull funding from York University must serve as a wake-up call: the university has a real and pervasive problem with anti-Semitism that it is failing to acknowledge. York administrators are far more willing to moralize in hazy abstractions of “free speech” and “inclusivity” than to actually address the specific concerns articulated time and again by Jewish students – namely that “free speech” is not a cover for the incitement of violence and that inclusivity, by its very definition, cannot mean that one group is consistently excluded, demonized, and marginalized.

Even if the mural were removed tomorrow, anti-Semitism would still be rampant at York. Consider three recent examples that have gained scarce, if any, media attention:

1. This February, the student union elections were characterized by a campaign of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Supporters of the fervently anti-Israel “Student Action” slate warned voters that the opposing slate was composed of “f—–g Jews” and “Zionist pigs.”

YUDivest students rally at York NEVER AGAIN PHOTO
YUDivest students rally at York NEVER AGAIN CANADA PHOTO

2. In November, a Jewish student submitted a motion to implement online voting in future student government elections. His religion alone was used as justification to smear him as a “racist” and a “murderous extremist.”

3. Last year, when I made the administration aware that the York student group Students Against Israeli Apartheid regularly incites violence online, including the glorification of terrorist groups banned by the Canadian government, I was treated as if I was deliberately seeking offence and was instructed, by means of an official recourse, not to look at the offensive material. Furthermore, administrators made clear that what is classified as terrorism by the federal government constitutes an “alternative point of view” at York.

I believe that free speech must be given a wide berth. I believe that alternative points of view add to the richness of Canadian diversity. But there are certain things that are unequivocally wrong – the promotion of violence and the demonization of Jewish students being a prime example.

In the same way that the university wouldn’t hang a mural of a KKK member holding a noose in his hands alongside a Confederate flag, it should not hang a mural of a Palestinian man poised to throw rocks alongside a map that eliminates Israel. This is especially true at a campus like York, where murals that portray violent stone throwing are not mere art pieces devoid of tangible repercussions. York officials are being dishonest by not acknowledging that the mural is one piece of a much larger problem.