University steps in over McGill Daily’s anti-Zionism ban

McGill University (McGill University photo)

The McGill Daily’s longstanding policy of not publishing anything it considers Zionist, even opinion, has sparked renewed opposition from supporters of Israel, bolstered by the Canadian government’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

The tone was set at the start of the academic year, when, on Sept. 3, the Daily published its definition of Zionism as “represent(ing) a racist attitude and violent practice against Palestinians” that “only recognizes Israeli/Jewish hegemony and legitimacy to self-determination in Palestine.”

Readers were invited to visit a BDS website for more information.

When the paper did not publish a rebuttal submitted a week later by two McGill University law students, the letter-writers turned to university administrators, arguing that the Daily was discriminatory and in violation of its own letters policy.

Although the Daily is published by an independent corporation, according to its most recent financial statement, it receives over $300,000 through student fees, which is by far its largest source of revenue.

After deputy provost Fabrice Labeau intervened, the letter penned by Michael Aarenau and Josh Shapiro was published in the Daily on Nov. 4, but with a lengthy editorial apologizing for its appearance and protesting “administrative interference.”

Aarenau and Shapiro contend that the Daily’s definition is “not only factually inaccurate, but malicious as well.… Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people to express their right to self-determination. Nothing more, nothing less.”

They conclude by saying that, “There’s a reason why the vast majority of Jews around the world (especially those at McGill) identify as Zionist, and it’s not because they’re violent, racist colonialists; it’s because they actually understand what Zionism is and, through their lived experiences, understand why it’s necessary.

“Ultimately, there’s plenty of room to critique the State of Israel and even Zionism itself, but in order to have a real conversation, you have to understand what it is you’re talking about.”

In its response in the same issue, the Daily’s editorial board said that it was pressured by the university to publish the letter.

“This is a clear display of administrative interference … as the deputy provost referenced a ‘nuclear option’ – arbitration between the Daily and the administration over interpretation of the Memorandum Agreement (between McGill and Daily Publications Society Inc.),” it states.

“This process would ultimately require time and money which the Daily does not have, but which the administration does. If the Daily were to lose in arbitration, it would mean our funding would be withheld, as would funding for Le Délit Français (the society’s French-language publication), thereby jeopardizing the existence of both papers.”

The editorial board contends that it was right in rejecting the letter because of its “inherent anti-Arab racism and dehumanization of Palestinian people,” noting that its “Statement of Principles” protects the Daily’s prerogative to ban content exhibiting “racial, ethnic, sexual and socioeconomic prejudice.”

It offered a lengthy explanation of how its definition of Zionism was arrived at, which culminates with accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and “violent occupation.”

It also thanked Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and Independent Jewish Voices McGill (IJV) for helping compose the response.

Two Toronto-based pro-Israel organizations have since denounced the Daily for equating Zionism with racism.

HonestReporting Canada (HRC) called out the Daily for its definition of Zionism in September. Mike Fegelman, HRC’s executive director, said at the time that the Daily’s “censorship of pro-Zionist opinions has racist overtones and xenophobic dimensions.”

He believes the Nov. 4 editorial confirms that point of view, given that it acknowledges the paper’s debt to SPHR and IJV, which Fegelman calls “zealous supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement.”

He notes that the IHRA definition includes “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

In June, the Canadian government formally adopted the IHRA definition as part of its new anti-racism strategy, but no penalty is attached for not subscribing to it. Canada is one of 31 member countries of the IHRA, which came out with the definition in 2016.

“The Daily’s gratuitous attacks on Israel, along with its being in bed with anti-Israel groups, and its aversion to providing a platform to a pro-Israel, Zionist discourse, has contributed to a toxic atmosphere at McGill,” said Fegelman. “As a result, Jewish and pro-Israel students feel they’re being targeted and suffer from prejudice, stigmatization and are being demonized.

“It’s praiseworthy that provost Labeau informed the Daily that if it did not publish (Aarenau and Shapiro’s) rebuttal, that an arbitration may result in the paper’s funding being withheld.”

HRC is asking the university’s administration to conduct a formal investigation into the Daily and to take immediate action to “ensure it ceases its anti-Israel animus and avowed discriminatory practices.”

Hasbara Fellowships Canada also commended Labeau for his handling of the matter.

Labeau “forced it to comply by threatening to withhold funding. Eventually, the Daily had no other choice but to print the letter, albeit in conspicuously small font and only following the Daily‘s own response, where it continued to promote blatant falsehoods and double standards, and demonize and delegitimize the Jewish State,” stated the organization’s executive director, Daniel Koren.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) also condemned the publication and pledged to continue to support students at the university.

“The manner in which the editors of the McGill Daily grudgingly published the response submitted by McGill students is a public repudiation of their commitment and obligation to present diverse viewpoints,” stated Rabbi Reuben Poupko, CIJA’s Quebec co-chair. “It is painfully ironic that those who claim to advocate for diversity have been exposed as censors of opinions with which they disagree.

“Jewish students will not be marginalized or intimidated. CIJA will continue to work with Hillel/GenMtL to ensure students have the support they need. That being said, it is encouraging to see that the Memorandum of Agreement is being enforced and that the deputy provost has facilitated ongoing dialogue among all students concerned.”