GUEST VOICE: University free speech can be unsettling

York University students drape Israeli flags to counter an anti-Israel rally in 2009.

Universities are disquieting places. Inevitably, university students hear new and challenging approaches to politics, economics, sexuality and religion that challenge their values.

And that’s just from their professors! From classmates, they hear an even wider range of viewpoints, without the filter that most professors employ. As Canadian universities strive to make education accessible to a broader swath of the population, students encounter classmates from segments of society they never met before. 

In some schools, such as ours, York University, many are the first in their family to attend university. Others come from families familiar with higher education. In any case, students come to university with diverse sets of values and biases. 

No statement by a student or professor reflects the values of the university. In fact, it is difficult to identify the values of any secular university, other than the free exchange of ideas.

A telling example of unsettling free speech on campus was a poorly written and argued editorial entitled “In response to Charlie Hebdo” that appeared recently in the York student newspaper, Excalibur. The writer decried religious extremism, offensively lumping together “ultra-Orthodox Jews” refusing to sit beside women on airplanes with the “gunmen” (not terrorists, and not identified by religious or ethnic affiliation) who “killed 12 individuals” at the Charlie Hebdo weekly. The author also omitted the murder of Jews two days later at the Hyper Cacher, buying food for Shabbat.

What reaction is appropriate to an article like that? The best reaction has already taken place. Current and former York students have written cogent, forceful responses, highlighting the contemptible nature of the editorial. Good speech is the best way to fight bad speech. In fact, web searches for this editorial this week are more likely to yield the students’ reactions to the editorial than the editorial itself. That’s great!

Can concerned people outside the university do anything to help? There is no simple answer to this question, but some things they should not do. They should not ask the university administration to censor the student newspaper. Universities are neither elementary schools nor houses of worship. Authority figures cannot tell students what to write. If the newspaper has not broken the laws of Canada, it is irrelevant that it has broken the standards of good taste. Student newspapers offend regularly all over the world.

Nor does it make sense to look for a university in Canada where offensive editorials will not be found. 

Anyone who thinks that the student newspaper at York occasionally offends Jews because York is the problem does not realize the extent of antipathy towards Israeli policies, and often toward Israel itself, among young people (mostly non-Jews) in our country. This is a serious problem that cannot be solved by finding another university. Anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment is not concentrated in one location. We ignore that reality at our peril! It gets noticed more here because of York’s large cohort of vocal, Israel-friendly students (and faculty) who challenge offending articles, and because of York’s location in Toronto. At universities with fewer committed Jews and no large Jewish community nearby, no one sounds the alarm.

Anywhere students go these days, including Israel, they will hear professors and classmates calling Israel an apartheid state, supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions, and spreading calumnies about Israeli genocide. The most reasonable thing for the community is to encourage students to attend universities where involved Jews, whatever their personal commitments to Judaism and Israel, can find support. At York they can associate with committed, articulate young people who speak up for a variety of Jewish causes. Students can’t avoid discomfort by studying in the hinterland. There they’ll encounter the same anti-Zionism without a critical mass of pro-Israel students with whom to associate, and without the infrastructure of Jewish life available at York (a kosher restaurant, close relations with Israeli universities, Jewish studies, and many Jewish faculty members involved with the community). That would certainly not serve the best interests of the Jewish community. 

Differing, free-wheeling – and some-times deeply offensive – ideas are among the challenges of university life. They are also great benefits to students. They help them sharpen ideas and learn to defend their positions to people who think differently or who have not yet formed an opinion – things we all must do in a free and diverse country. 

Michael Brown, Martin Lockshin, Sara R. Horowitz and Carl S. Ehrlich have all served as directors of the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York.