International academics oppose boycott of University of Toronto

Valentina Azarova

Scholars from around the world are defending the University of Toronto’s handling of the Valentina Azarova controversy.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, representing 50,000 academics from across the globe, said in a statement this week it is “deeply concerned” by a boycott of UofT called by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). The group, which has chapters at three Canadian universities, also voiced “strong support” for a reviewer’s conclusion that donor interference played no part in the decision not to hire Azarova.

Azarova’s supporters say she was the unanimous choice of a hiring committee looking for a new director of the UofT law school’s International Human Rights Program. They say the job was offered to Azarova, but the offer was suddenly withdrawn after a wealthy Jewish donor objected to her history of highly critical writing about Israel.

University administration, however, has said a formal job offer was never made because of immigration issues and because Azarova lacks a licence to practice law anywhere in the world—a key requirement of the job.

In its statement, SPME said UofT opponents are using the Azarova controversy as another excuse to attack Israel.

“Those who refuse acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East have turned from invasion to terrorism, and on campuses, in particular, to double standards, demonization and delegitimization,” the group said.

“The delegitimization campaign often camouflages with a supposed scholarship component, portraying the very existence of Israel as a violation of more or less every international legal standard in the canon. Valentina Azarova is one of this coterie of extreme anti-Israel activists using scholarship as a form of Israel bashing.”

Calling the hiring decision an attack on academic freedom, the CAUT issued a rare motion of censure against UofT. The motion calls on academics not to accept appointments or speaking engagements at UofT. It has already resulted in the cancellation of several events, including a speech by former Governor General Michaelle Jean.

In an effort to quiet the controversy the university commissioned retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell to investigate its handling of the affair. In a report released in March he concluded donor interference was not a factor in the decision.

SPME endorsed the Cromwell report as a “measured and meticulous” review of the controversy and accused CAUT of spreading a “false narrative” steeped in “classical anti-Semitic myths… wildly divorced from the facts.”

In its analysis, SPME said the search committee that recommended hiring Azarova was irresponsible in not taking her long history of anti-Israel writing into account, a history the group says would create a hostile environment on campus.

“The dubious academic, associational history of Azarova, her history of intolerance, the absence of any consideration of that history by the search committee, the harm that a person with that history would inflict on the University and the Program, as much as they should have, played no part in the decision of the University not to hire Azarova,” SPME said.

Rather than deal with those facts, SPME accused CAUT of manufacturing a narrative in which a Jewish donor tried to influence the hiring decision.

“The CAUT censure is more than just an inappropriate suggestion. It is bullying, a coercion, a form of blackmail,” SPME said. “CAUT is calling on its members to boycott the University of Toronto unless the University hires the candidate CAUT has decided to favour.

“The CAUT attempt to force the University to hire anyone is unjustified, inexcusable and disgraceful. It needs an unequivocal rejection from the University and from scholars everywhere. We urge scholars everywhere to stand with the University of Toronto against this coercion and undue outside interference by CAUT.”

CAUT has said its boycott motion will be lifted if Azarova is immediately hired.

B’nai Brith Canada, in its own legal analysis of the controversy, welcomed the university’s support of Cromwell’s recommendations and rejected “the inappropriate censure of the university” by CAUT.

David Matas, B’nai Brith’s senior legal counsel, wrote “the decision to forgo hiring Valentina Azarova… was not based on outside pressure. Rather, it hinged on the fact that the university concluded that she did not qualify because she could not obtain an immigration work permit.”

“The decision was made without consideration of Azarova’s long history of extreme one-sided advocacy against Israel, including her affiliations with radical anti-Israel groups and intolerance towards other views,” Matas wrote.

He added Azarova’s appointment to lead a human-rights program at one of the world’s most prestigious universities would have been “a travesty and a tragedy given her extreme one-sided attacks on Israel, intolerance towards other views and the ensuing hostility to pro-Israel Jewish and non-Jewish students and faculty.”