The mural and the damage done

York University
York University

Last week, The CJN was first to report Toronto businessman Paul Bronfman’s decision to pull funding from York University over a painting entitled Palestinian Roots, which hangs in the school’s student centre. This week, we take a closer look at the debate surrounding the controversial painting.

Frequent CJN contributor Michael Diamond argues that Palestinian Roots acts as a “negative symbol” for York’s Jewish students. “Its presence,” he writes, “reflects the negative experience of many Jewish students at York… who are aggrieved by what appears to be a callous disregard for their feelings and emotional welfare.” The painting’s impact, he notes, might have been muted were the situation on campus more positive for York’s Jewish and pro-Israel students. Instead, “for the many Jews on campus who identify strongly with Israel, [the painting] is a warning of public denunciation, verbal attacks or worse to come from fellow students, graduate students and professors.”

Palestinian Roots mural

Lorne Sossin, dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, sees room for more nuance when it comes to Palestinian Roots. “Some saw it as an incitement to violence, as it appears not just to depict a Palestinian about to throw a rock at an Israeli outpost but to glorify doing so,” he writes. “Others I spoke with saw it as an expression of the self-destructive impulse of a young person about to engage in senseless violence. Still others saw it as an unfair and damaging portrayal of Palestinians as rock-throwers rather than a community defined by its culture, shared hopes and values.”

Diamond wouldn’t disagree that the meaning of art lies in the eye of the beholder, nor that freedom of expression is an essential characteristic of the university experience. But he contends that “free speech does not actually exist at York,” where “one’s freedom to express a point of view is judged more or less acceptable depending on the point of view expressed.” “To support the Palestinian Roots mural on the basis of free speech is unacceptable,” he adds, “because free speech, in its true sense, is absent at York University.”

For its part, the university claims its hands are tied, since the student centre is “a separate and distinct legal entity.” “The students who run the [student] centre,” Sossin explains, “have the right to decide what art is put on its walls.” (For his part, Bronfman dismissed that argument. “It’s a bunch of political, bureaucratic rhetoric,” he told The CJN.)

And yet, ultimately, Diamond and Sossin agree that Palestinian Roots should be taken down, albeit for different reasons. For Diamond, “the mural is offensive and uncomfortable to anyone who is aware of its symbols,” while Sossin’s reasoning is more technical: “[S]ince the contest under which the mural was displayed specified a specific two-year term which has now passed, to continue to display the mural at this point… appears to reflect a specific intention to see some York students as unwelcome in their own centre.”

For now, though, Palestinian Roots continues to hang in York’s student centre, a stark reminder of the rising temperature on campus. The question is whether all sides can come to some sort of understanding before this situation gets even worse.