Paul Finlayson made fiery pro-Israel comments after Oct. 7. Then his university suspended him

Paul Finlayson
Business professor Paul Finlayson, 59, stands in front of piles of paperwork pertaining to his suspension from teaching due to his pro-Israel social media comments after Oct. 7. (Ellin Bessner photo)

It’s coming up on five months since Paul Finlayson, a business instructor in the Toronto area, was suspended from teaching at the University of Guelph-Humber, in Nov. 2023. Finlayson, who is not Jewish, is the subject of an internal investigation after several students and staff members filed complaints in the aftermath of Oct. 7. They told the university they felt unsafe on campus after seeing one of his personal social media posts on LinkedIn, in which Finlayson sided with Israel and denounced Hamas’s murder of 1,400 Israelis, saying they want a “barbaric primitive Islamic caliphate and hate all post-enlightenment values.” He suggested that anyone who said “From the river to the sea” was a Nazi, wanted to see dead Jews and supported Hitler.

Finlayson took his LinkedIn post down in a matter of days, but a week later, the school suspended him. The complaint—led by a Palestinian colleague—said the words incited hatred, Islamophobia and possibly even physical violence against Muslims, adding that his post “dehumanized Palestinians”.

On today’s episode of The CJN Daily, host Ellin Bessner sits down with Finlayson to find out why he is still fighting for his rights to free expression, despite a climate where “Zionist” has become a dirty word on Canadian campuses.

What we talked about:

  • Read more from Finlayson and follow his Substack, called “Freedom to Offend” 
  • See LinkedIn posts made by complainant Wael Ramadan

Transcript:

Paul Finlayson: These are collective agreements and policy and procedure. This is my rebuttal.

Ellin Bessner: That’s the voice of Professor Paul Finlayson, showing me all the official documents he’s printed out about his teaching suspension. He’s got them piled neatly all over the family ping pong table in the basement of his home in Maple just north of Toronto. Five months ago, this week, in late November 2023, Finlayson was barred from campus at the University of Guelph at Humber, in the west end after he put an Israeli emoji flag on his personal Instagram account after October 7, and a few weeks later, posted a strongly-written comment on his LinkedIn account supporting Israel and criticizing people who support what Hamas did–saying Palestinians who want all of Israel back side with Hitler and are Nazis who want dead Jews.

Now, Finlayson himself isn’t Jewish. But he says as a result of his comments outside of the classroom, he became the target of complaints that his post made people feel unsafe in the classroom and on campus.

But Finlayson is fighting back.

He’s mad that exercising his rights to free speech and to support Israel and the Jewish people has actually made him the victim of cancel culture on a Canadian university campus and could likely cost him his teaching career permanently, not just at Geulph Humber, but wherever he tries to get work next.

Paul Finlayson: Maybe saying something pro-Israel is not in my career best interest. I don’t know. Obviously what happened here is not in my career best interest, but I have to live with myself. I live in a free country and I will say what I want and I will stand with Israel if I want.

Ellin Bessner: I’m Ellin Bessner, and this is what Jewish Canada sounds like for Friday, April 26, 2024. Welcome to the CJN Daily, a podcast of The Canadian Jewish News sponsored by Metropia.

Paul Finlayson has been teaching full time for the past dozen or so years at several Ontario universities and colleges.

He has two master’s degrees. He teaches digital marketing, marketing, ecommerce, business writing courses and more and he’s not tenured. So he cobbles together as many courses as he can per semester to earn a living and teaches at more than one place at a time.

As you heard at the beginning, he’s been fighting his suspension from home where he lives with his wife who is a doctor and their son and daughter and the family’s two West Highland terrier dogs.

The school kept most of the complainants’ identities confidential, but they did tell him the name of one, a Palestinian professor at the school named Wael Ramadan.

Ramadan says Finlayson’s posts were inciting hatred and violence and dehumanized Palestinians and made students feel under threat, especially Muslim students.

The school was also told that Finlayson allegedly physically threatened some students who had reposted his LinkedIn post after he deleted it. Finlayson denies any of those allegations.

He was locked out of his office on campus.

He wasn’t permitted to contact any of his former students and all the new courses he was scheduled to teach for this coming summer semester have been canceled. Now he’s under investigation but has been paid while it’s underway. In the meantime, I sat down with Finlayson a few days ago to hear how his life exploded but why he isn’t giving up.

Welcome to The CJN Daily.

Paul Finlayson: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Ellin Bessner: Actually, nice to be in your house. Are you working at the moment for any school?

Paul Finlayson: Yeah, I’m teaching at another university. I’m teaching four courses. We’re just going into exams now. I am suspended with pay right now from Guelph Humber and it’s probably gonna run out in a few weeks.

Ellin Bessner: The other university, they’re still paying you and you’re still going through to finish your semester?

Paul Finlayson: Yeah, things are cool at the other university. Yeah.

Some people took a little bit of a run at me there to try and get me canned, but it was rebuffed quite quickly. Things are fine with them. In the summer, I’m gonna teach. I got contracts for this summer. So I’m going to teach in this summer and I’m grateful for the work.

Ellin Bessner: Let’s describe where the environment is. What was your involvement, even awareness of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the history of it, if at all. Like, how did you know anything about it?

Paul Finlayson: I follow. I’m not a professional historian but I read a lot and I’ve read a lot since I was a young child. I’ve been to Auschwitz, I’ve been to Dachau, as a teenager, on my own. Most people go, you know, to the red light district and I went to Auschwitz.

Ellin Bessner: Did you go by yourself, hitchhiking? Tell me more about that.

Paul Finlayson: When I was 19, I moved to Switzerland to work for a year on an exchange program, sort of a volunteer program. And I was living and working on a farm in Switzerland and later a farm in France but I did get some time off, but I just felt it wasn’t just a lark. I’d read a lot on it. Just even reading Leon Uris’ “Exodus” when I was young and I’ve read a lot of books on Israel and I guess I’ve always felt sort of an alliance and sympathies and I’ve followed and read about everything going on in the Middle East.

I mean, it’s not a black and white issue. It’s very complex and I’m not saying I’m a world expert in it. But Jewish people are probably the most remarkable culture that’s ever lived on this planet.

They have about 15 million people. They’ve won 20% of Nobel Prizes.

The culture is a powerful force in an individual’s life or in a society’s life and the culture is just very, very productive. And I was always impressed.

Ellin Bessner: Did you have Jewish friends growing up? Where did you grow up?

Paul Finlayson: I grew up in Winnipeg. I went to a private school there, St. John’s-Ravenscourt for some years. And there were quite a few Jewish people there. Winnipeg has a pretty extensive Jewish population. I’m 59. So I’m old enough. The Holocaust is not, it’s not just a distant memory, it’s still in the shadows and in the darkness and the ripples of the Holocaust are still permeating Jewish society today and they certainly were doing even more.

Ellin Bessner: So, you had some Jewish friends growing up? Did you ever see any antisemitism?

Paul Finlayson: Personally, I can’t remember any antisemitism when I was growing up. I mean, institutionalized antisemitism isn’t that far back. And it’s just, well, I thought it was pushed under the covers.

Apparently not because it’s on the streets right now.

Ellin Bessner: When you heard what happened October 7th, where were you? It was in the middle of the night, it was Saturday morning.

Paul Finlayson: I was at home. I was horrified. I thought of those kids . (His voice breaks.) And sorry, but it affects me now. You just met my, son and my daughter and they’re the same age of the kids who would have been at that music festival and they were slaughtered in a medieval, terrifying manner and they were innocent and they were old people who are innocent, they are little infants, and to see this and I thought OK it wasn’t my kids, but why wasn’t I my kids? Just by an act of God and and circumstance and geography it could have been.

And then I did not expect a backlash against the victims. I thought we were really into the victim culture but I guess that’s just another rule that doesn’t apply to Jews, and so soon after that,

Ellin Bessner: Wait, did you know about that? That Jews are not part of the DEI, diversity equity and inclusion? Many schools don’t accept that Jews are victims.

Paul Finlayson: I hadn’t learned that. But I’m sort of saying that sarcastically because there seems to be in not just institutions but just in patterns of behaviour and culturally, the double standards that people and societies, and legislated double standards, and non- legislated double standards are just so appalling. And they’re so often applied to Jewish people.

We claim to be these intellectual people who parse through information and everything is very, very clear and then we just lose our minds (not me) when it comes to Jewish people. 

I mean, look what we see with these extreme leftist people, and a lot of other people have said this, who are supporting essentially a theocracy, a medieval theocracy in Hamas that would not allow, would throw them off rooftops and would not allow them to live. And there’s Palestinian leaders, they found out they were homosexual and they killed him in the streets. There was no judicial process and the fact that people on the Left affiliate themselves with these monsters, that actually it’s not even in their self interest to affiliate with them, it’s just mind-blowing.

Ellin Bessner: Was there an atmosphere at all that you noticed before October 7th of Israel-bashing or anti-israel or anti-Zionist or anti-Jews at all (at school). Did you ever twig to any of that?

Paul Finlayson: Yeah, I twigged to it.

I had some conversations. I have some IDF merch. Some hoodies. Because I like them. And because I know that there is this undercurrent of all the cliches about what’s going on in the West Bank, in Gaza and Israel, and it’s sort of this reflex of Gen Z, pro-Palestinian.

And I wasn’t trying to cause a commotion, but I thought “I like this idea of a hoodie. I’m going to wear it.” I’m allowed to wear what I want. Why shouldn’t I wear it?

And I got some looks, but I had this before. I had very good conversations with Muslim students and some of it was “agreed to disagree”, but never an argument and always respectful. I thought that there was enough sort of reflexive pro-Palestine or anti-Israel: I would just wear my IDF hoodie. It was sort of just a lark.

But I don’t do well with bullies. I never have. And, so I wore it and, a couple of people said things, but it wasn’t that big a deal. Free society, free expression. I thought we were all good.

Ellin Bessner: And then before October 7th, did anything else happen in this vein?

Paul Finlayson: Just some students didn’t like my views. Right on October 7th, I did put an Israel flag on my Instagram and someone who was not left wing and a very nice fellow–I have nothing against him–but he apparently told someone that I shouldn’t be putting an Israel flag on my Instagram and not because I’m Jewish but solidarity with the Jewish nation. I didn’t get into an argument with him but my attitude was “Piss off,  I’ll do what I want.” I don’t believe in this sort of “Just withdraw and be polite and make sure you don’t offend anybody.”

I’m not trying to deliberately offend anyone but I think when there’s pressures in an organization, say anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish, a smarter person or a more practical person might say, well, keep your, keep your words to yourself. Don’t post. Don’t say anything. Be silent because there’s no good that can come from it.

And I just utterly reject that philosophy because what happens then is that people, the tyrants, the bullies, the squeaky wheels, they just get to dominate the whole narrative. And I’m not willing to let that happen.

So if that offends you, let’s deal with it.

I prefer you talk to me.Knock on my door rather than this rubbish on social media and on digital.

Ellin Bessner: But you’re a digital marketing professor, to be fair. You know how it works. You teach this stuff.

Paul Finlayson: I do.

Ellin Bessner: But how surprised were you at the reaction to that post?

And to the one which is apparently the one that caused things to go, tip over the edge, which was on LinkedIn.

Paul Finlayson: I was surprised. First of all, I was responding to a guy in Pakistan who was calling for the destruction of a nation. I think that’s a pretty vile thing to say. I have friends who are in Israel.

There’s 9 million people, I think. Approximately 7 million Jews, about 2 million Arabs who live there. And it’s basically calling for my friends to be killed and I find that rather offensive. And I’m not a big LinkedIn user. I’m not even a huge social media user. I teach also marketing but I teach it. But I also teach how social media is so corrosive in our society and it creates such tribalism. It’s really a negative force.

But the fact is with promotion, you have to go where the people are and it needs to be taught.

Ellin Bessner: Was anything mentioned in class?

Paul Finlayson: No 

Ellin Bessner: Did you have discussions with the students or in the hallway?

Paul Finlayson: Not in the hallway. Some students that come to my office talked and there were never any arguments, but if someone starts talking about Israel and they’re saying things that I don’t think are true. I’m not going to, not in a combative way…

Ellin Bessner: Why would they do that to you? Don’t they just want to talk about their marks? This was right after October 7th and it was a fraught time.

Paul Finlayson: I’m a bit different. I’m sort of the friendly chatty type.

I don’t have a huge distance between myself and the students.

I have a private office there. I’m friendly with students.They tell me “You’re just easy to talk to”. So I talk to them all the time and if they want to talk about life, well, I’ve had students stop by and visit and they’ll talk for an hour and none of it will be school-related. I’m not trying to be a counsellor or even really a friend, but I’m there to listen and I think they have something to say. I think that generation has something to say.

Ellin Bessner: So you were having a normal couple of days. You posted a few things. But from what you’re saying to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, life in school in October, November was going along fine. Or was there other stuff going on, too?

Paul Finlayson: Yeah.

Ellin Bessner: Like, letters to the editor?

Paul Finlayson: No, I did contact administration. I just forgot about this.  I don’t think I said anything strong. They do these sort of milquetoast statements, and I’m sorry, I don’t know why administrators feel the need to comment on every social issue. Like we’re not sitting there waiting for what you have to say. I’m sorry, we’re not. And it’s annoying. And of course, on this, they have to–like our prime minister– they have to come right down the middle, which is really no position at all. The middle is no position at all.

Ellin Bessner: So you thought it was lame and you let them know it.

Paul Finlayson: And then the one that they came out with was a little better. And I said “That’s better.”

Ellin Bessner: So they knew a little bit about, that you were around.

Then somebody complained. How did it all escalate in a matter of days, hours?

Paul Finlayson: A student who was very friendly to me said on Instagram, there’s some students who found your LinkedIn post and they’ve done a screen capture and they put it on Instagram and they’re agitating and you just better be careful. Maybe you should be proactive and go talk to the administration about this.

Ellin Bessner: Did they tell you to take it down?

Paul Finlayson: No. Nobody told me.  I took it down sort of rolling my eyes. I took it down soon after because it wasn’t the most well grafted manifesto. It was reacting to a guy who wanted Israel destroyed.

It was the typical post that people do on Twitter.And I thought nothing of it.

And then the next thing you know, I’m in a little detective room on the top floor, just with a lot of animosity there and I’m pushing back but then it just blew up.

I don’t think this has ever happened to them before. I think they had no idea what they were doing and it was just chaos and I think it’s still chaos.

I think sometimes we ascribe to malice what is really incompetence with a little bit of a malice sprinkled in, and unfortunately, incompetence with malice sprinkled in is still a pretty deathly soup to drink.

Ellin Bessner: So the students complained or another professor complained? Who’s your accuser?

Paul Finlayson: It started with students. And then I got a complaint, an official human rights complaint, and that was driven by a fellow professor. But the official person who signed this human rights complaint was the vice-provost, which freaked me out and I didn’t understand and I knew it was against the rules. And then I got on the human rights complaint.

I found out that other people have been complaining. There’s one principal accuser and probably about six or seven anonymous ones and the principal one is anonymous officially. I just found out [who) because they put the person’s initials. Give me a break. I’m not that stupid. I figured it out in about two seconds. And I don’t know this person at all.

I’ve seen them teaching but I don’t know them. 

Ellin Bessner: We can say that there he is a known anti-Israel person with major social media trails of horrible stuff.

Paul Finlayson:  And then parents are attacking me, parents of students. They all kept saying “I fear violence. I fear. I don’t feel safe.”

There were all these words that are associated with violence and then it turns out, then there was an accusation that I had physically attacked a student in class and ripped off his shirt and was escorted out by police or security, depending on what variants of the story you hear.

And this is a complete lie. I was at home. It’s very offensive to me.

I love my students.

And first of all, I’m not a very tough guy anyways. I’m a lot older than them, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m not violent. I think I’ve raised my voice in class very rarely. And I’ve never had a conflict in a class.

And then suddenly I’m being accused of violence>? And then this is the way things work: if you say you feel unsafe because of a false claim, you’re allowed anonymity. So it’s a circular argument and it’s actually not covered by the policies.

I guess the anxiety is not from like you’d get during a trial in a civil trial,  where there’s a sense of due process and of truth and evidence. But in university tribunals, they really are very Maoist. They’re kangaroo courts. They have something called balance of probabilities with, they say, very low evidentiary standards. I think they might be zero. It’s who they believe.

If they choose to believe a liar over someone telling the truth, they can and you can be fired for it. And that’s just the way it is.

Ellin Bessner: What do you want to come out of this?

Paul Finlayson: First of all? I like it to be over. The process should have been finished months ago.  I would still like my job back.

I know, because of the Petri dish of gossip –and I’m not talking just students. I have staff who recorded staff accusing me of crimes and trying to convince students that I did these crimes and of saying that the school has been trying to get rid of me.

No, they haven’t been. My human resources file is empty.

I was, if not the best one of the best in the department. It sounds arrogant, but I’m not going to let this person basically trash my record.

And then they said in December, this staff member said that they had heard from their boss or their boss’s boss that Paul Finlayson will be terminated. So I have to live with that.

For four months, I’ve been told that a senior administrator who has the power to do this is already going to fire you anyways. But we want you to go through the steps. Ok? We want to make it look like we actually are playing by the rules. We can’t fire you because we don’t like the colour of your socks. But we’re going to pretend that it’s a reason.

So what am I looking for? I still would like to to return to work. I can handle myself in the classroom. Apparently, students right now think that I’m a huge racist. I’m not. They can think what they want.

If it’s such a hostile work environment, maybe that wouldn’t even work.

I don’t know. What I think will happen is, probably in the summer, they will continue their little pseudo-process. And the person who’s making the charges against me is also the one determining my discipline.

Ellin Bessner: Which is the Provost?

Paul Finlayson:  Vice provost. So, yeah, they get to multitask because they can be judge and prosecutor. The union undoubtedly will grieve it, the school would reject the grievance and then it would go to arbitration and then the arbitrator could give me my job back.

That rarely happens.

So what normally actually happens, I’m told, is rather than send someone back to work, they just buy them out and they just throw fistfuls of cash at them and a settlement. So that might, that probably will happen. The other options there is, it’s not only the union route. There’s also defamation. I’ll just leave it open ended.

Obviously, I’m going to pursue all legal options. It’s a very, very clear case. It’s black and white.

It’s basically the University of Guelph and Humber College and Guelph Humber are saying that if you say you stand with Israel and say Hamas are Nazis, we will make your life hell.

We will treat you like a criminal.

We will banish you. We will cut you off from your community.

We will allow gossip and our own staff will encourage the gossip and we will try and destroy you and we will fire you if you say you stand with Israel.

So the normative belief now is antisemitism and the aberrant firing belief is standing with Israel, and I think that’s a huge red line and I hope the Gentile community and the Jewish community says “no”. Enough.

I’ve got a lot to be grateful for. I’m not a victim. But what has happened is wrong. And I believe antisemitism is a condition of the human heart.

I believe there’s a lot of it there and I’m not gonna be bullied. I’m not gonna show any remorse. I am not apologizing.

I said I stand with Israel and I said that Hamas are Nazis, and I don’t know why I’m emotional now, but I don’t care what they do. I am not backing down. I’m not equivocating on that.

I think what I said was fine under free speech. And I appreciate all the support that I’m getting right now, especially from the Jewish community, but I am not backing down.

So what I would like to accomplish through this is that these institutions, the ones I’m dealing with or perhaps other institutions, too, that they see if we do something like this to this professor, instructor lecturer, they got a lot of backlash in the media and it really hurt them and we don’t want this to happen to us.

So maybe we should act like a civilized, decent human being and actually treat this instructor–it doesn’t have to be in academia– whoever they are, decently and not push them out the door because they don’t agree with our views on Israel. So I would hope if the backlash is strong enough here, that it would somewhat inoculate people in the future that we don’t know about.

Music:

Ellin Bessner: And that’s what Jewish Canada sounds like for this episode of The CJN Daily, sponsored by Metropia. Integrity, community quality and customer care.

If you’d like to follow Professor Finlayson’s blog on Substack, called Freedom to Offend, the link is in our show notes.

Credits:

The CJN Daily is written and hosted by Ellin Bessner (@ebessner on Twitter). Zachary Kauffman is the producer. Michael Fraiman is the executive producer. Our theme music is by Dov Beck-Levine. Our title sponsor is Metropia. We’re a member of The CJN Podcast Network. To subscribe to this podcast, please watch this video. Donate to The CJN and receive a charitable tax receipt by clicking here. Hear why The CJN is important to me.