Lessons for Jews and Zionists from the Andrew Potter affair

McGill University
McGill University building. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Andrew Potter – a McGill University colleague whom I don’t know – recently suggested that the dysfunctional inability to clean up Quebec after a snowstorm reflected a broader “malaise.” The resulting backlash forced him to resign from his “dream job” as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Critics are justifiably worrying about the state of academic freedom at McGill. Clearly, Potter erred by touching a sacred cow – Quebec society. And the sad truth is that at McGill and elsewhere these days, free speech depends on the target.

Gays, African-Americans, women, Muslims – and among Canadian Anglos, Quebec – are all sacred cows, not to be touched, except gingerly and never sarcastically. There are of course, punching bags, especially Donald Trump and the Republicans. Sadly, even though Jews are more like the other vulnerable minorities mentioned rather than the pugnacious U.S. president, Israel and Zionism are punching bags, too.

It’s clear when you read Potter’s column that he was having fun, which I appreciate as both a reader and a writer. When someone writes, as Potter did in his second paragraph, that “the very idea of civil society looks like a cheapo paint job from a chiseling body shop,” you know which way the column is going. If you’re sensitive or have little tolerance for overstatement, such language is a sign to stop reading. In fact, surprisingly, in addition to heaping more punchlines, Potter also backed his most devastating claims about Quebec’s underground economy and disintegrating “almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society” – with statistics. (Maybe that made it worse, because it showed he was serious, and spot on.)


The inevitable firestorm created Potter’s infamous snowstorm column. “The Views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill,” the university tweeted. Of course they didn’t! That’s the point of having a diverse faculty. Every day, the university should tweet that “the views expressed by @GilTroy – and every other professor who published something today – do not represent those of #McGill.” That’s not our job. In fact, tweeting to repudiate one column suggests all the others do “represent” McGill. Although Potter losing his job was obviously more consequential, this defensive, inappropriate and ultimately paternalistic tweet was the university’s most offensive action.

Now, if I may, a dose of nuance.

First, Potter lost his directorship of the institute but kept his professorship.

Second, this situation is exceptional and has to do with the university’s sensitivities regarding Quebec. I have been writing controversial columns as a McGill professor for decades and have never been reprimanded or discouraged, although I have occasionally made administrators wince.

The time I confronted McGill most directly – when the university foolishly gave an honorary doctorate to former Irish president Mary Robinson, who failed to stop the intellectual anti-Zionist pogrom at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa,  in 2001 – the principal at the time, Heather Munroe-Blum, went out of her way to support my right to criticize. (In turn, I went out of my way to emphasize that I was criticizing one decision, not repudiating McGill, my academic home.)

The Potter fight is particularly sobering for Zionists, because Israel is libelled daily on most campuses. Our Jewish students feel harassed by students and professors, while feeling abandoned by administrators. Clearly, the invisible tripwires surrounding particular topics are calibrated differently. The tripwire around Quebec for Anglos in a university dependent on Quebec government funding is set to its highest sensitivity, and triggers the loudest alarm. The tripwire around Israel and Zionism is set very differently, and there’s high tolerance for outrageous lies.

There is, of course, a term for bias against one group: bigotry. And the term for bigotry against Jews, including double standards, is anti-Semitism. We – not at McGill, but in society – have a problem. Ignoring it makes it worse.