For Canadian universities, the Palestinian is the ‘toxic other’

People chant and wave a giant Palestinian flag as thousands gather in Toronto, Canada, to show their support for the people of Palestine, May 15, 2021 (Cole Burston - AFP)

M. Muhannad Ayyash

Al-Jazeera  /  November 30, 2022

Much like Israel expels Palestinians from their lands, Canadian universities are actively expelling the Palestinian critique from their halls of academe.

Nearly every university in Canada has a statement or document that states its commitment to anti-racism. As social institutions that proclaim to advance knowledge and promote a more equitable, inclusive, free, and democratic society, universities have publicly positioned themselves over the last few years as active participants in the fight against racism.

Sadly, when you examine university policy or speak with racialized faculty, students, and staff, you quickly realize that most universities exhibit a shallow understanding and practice of anti-racism.

Universities are anti-racist in the same way that multinational corporations are anti-racist: they advance, entrench, expand, and benefit from structural racism while claiming to be anti-racist, which judging by their actions, simply means, being “tolerant” of people of colour.

Thus, not only are universities failing to address the problem of racism in society writ large, they can’t even properly address it on campuses across Canada, where structural racism remains the norm, as Black and Indigenous scholars have been teaching us for decades.

Anti-Palestinian racism is another example of this. In a report published in April, The Arab Canadian Lawyers Association defined anti-Palestinian racism as “a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or de-humanizes Palestinians or their narratives.” The extensive report, prepared by Dania Majid, shows the prevalence of anti-Palestinian racism across a number of institutions in Canada.

Particularly important is how Palestinian narratives are erased and excluded. These are narratives that were developed and advanced by Palestinian scholars, artists, activists, political leaders, communities, and civil society organizations, and which allow us to make sense of the violence, oppression, expulsion, displacement, and dispossession that Palestinians have endured for decades, as well as the Palestinian aspirations for liberation and freedom.

Critical to underscore here, as I previously argued in an academic journal article, is a salient feature of anti-Palestinian racism in academe: the expulsion of the Palestinian critique of Zionism and Israel. This is a critique – which is also adopted by non-Palestinians – that is based in, and emerges from, the Palestinian experience of the Zionist project, and one that incisively and convincingly shows, since the 1910s, what the Zionist project was/is/and can only be: a racist settler colonial project that violently expels Indigenous Palestinians from their lands, erasing their history, presence, aspirations, and identity.

Much like Israel expels Palestinians from their lands, academic institutions in Canada – a settler colony that is a staunch ally and supporter of Israel’s settler colonial project – actively expel the Palestinian critique from their halls of academe.

A report recently released by Independent Jewish Voices documents this experience of Palestinians and their allies on Canadian university campuses.

The 100-page report has been authored by Sheryl Nestel and Rowan Gaudet, who collected approximately 80 testimonies from Palestinian, Jewish, and other racialized academics and students describing the experiences of repression, silencing, harassment, intimidation, and marginalization that they face on Canadian campuses.

The stories in the report are what the expulsion of the Palestinian critique looks like in practice. The most prominent way in which this expulsion is accomplished is by casting the Palestinian critique as anti-Semitic and violent. For decades, Israel and its supporters have been redefining anti-Semitism to include the Palestinian critique of Zionism and Israel, most recently in their promotion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism.

Instead of being framed for what it actually is – a call for de-colonial liberation and freedom – the Palestinian critique is associated with anti-Semitism, rendering the Palestinian what I call the “toxic other”: the “other” that only brings toxicity to academe because of the racist, spurious, and outrageous claim that Palestinians hold a naturally bigoted and violent disposition towards Jews.

The prevalence of this approach – laughable from a substantive standpoint yet harmful and violent in its effects – is evident in the report, which states: “Unsubstantiated allegations of antisemitic intent and support for terrorism are commonly levelled against pro-Palestine academics and activists. Significantly, Palestinians, Muslims, and non-Arab racialised participants appear to have borne the brunt of direct attacks on their scholarship and activism. The emotional impact of harassment and suppression was felt most acutely by the Palestinian students and faculty interviewed. Jewish activists were not immune to attack and were often characterized by opponents as ‘kapos’ or ‘self-hating Jews.’”

The report concludes that the result of all this repression, erasure, and expulsion is a “chilling effect” in Canada that discourages open and honest discussion of Palestinian liberation.

And while Palestinians and their supporters are experiencing this structural racism, one might wonder: what are Canadian universities doing as this anti-Palestinian racism problem goes unaddressed and unchecked?

We need not try to imagine where Canadian universities stand on this question, and we need not pay attention to what they say, but rather what they do. Take this recent example as the real indicator of where we are. In August of this year, multiple Canadian university presidents went on a junket to Israel. Not much is known about this trip. It was never announced before it took place, and Canadian universities that participated have remained quiet about the trip to this day.

Canadian universities that are thought to have attended are neither confirming nor denying their participation. We don’t even know how many university presidents and/or senior members of the administrations actually went, but Israeli institutions have announced that Concordia University, Dalhousie University, University of Manitoba, McGill University, University of Ottawa, Simon Fraser University, University of Waterloo, Western University, York University, and the Chief Operations Officer at the U15 group of Canadian research-intensive universities are among the participants.

We know that they were hosted by Israeli institutions and lobby groups, and surely given the propagandist narratives of the Israeli state on their visit – eg, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; Israel is the only guarantor of security for all Jews everywhere; the West needs to work with Israel to help it survive hostile and anti-Semitic Arabs; look at the wonderful research being undertaken by such a small country that is under siege from backwards and violent Arabs; Israel can be an asset for research in Canada; and the rest of it.

These Canadian universities, some of which already have established strong relationships and ties to Israeli institutions, are proclaiming to be anti-racist on the one hand, and acting in concert with a racist apartheid regime on the other. In other words, they are complicit with apartheid and settler colonialism while telling us that they are anti-racist and committed to decolonization.

A group of scholars in Canada are requesting answers to some basic questions: Why didn’t Canadian universities announce this trip? Why would Canadian universities work with lobby groups that have interfered in the academic affairs of Canadian universities? And why did these university presidents choose to ignore the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions that has been clearly communicated by Palestinian academics, students, and indeed across many sectors of Palestinian civil society?

Despite the efforts of a group of committed scholars, university presidents from the above-named universities, as par for the course, are simply ignoring these questions, just as they have ignored and continue to ignore the experiences of anti-Palestinian racism that many faculty, students, and staff are facing on their campuses. And this should not come as a surprise.

The fact of the matter is that Canadian universities are part of the settler colonial structure that eliminates and expels Indigenous peoples in the settler colony of Canada and in the settler colony of Israel. Little can be expected from these universities, as all we ever receive are shallow and vague commitments that amount to nothing more than what European liberal thought and institutions have always offered: the crumbs of inclusion and equity, what is otherwise known as liberal tolerance.

The logic of liberal tolerance is simple. It says, “I will not inflict violence on you directly or harshly, only softly, calmly, and quietly, and you must accept this as the price you pay for entry into my halls.” The term “liberal tolerance” have perhaps disappeared from university policies and documents, but it is still the logic that guides and shapes university actions.

The actions, in this case, are clear: Canadian universities are not interested in naming, let alone addressing, anti-Palestinian racism; and not only that, Canadian universities directly engage in anti-Palestinian racism when they consider Palestinian demands for freedom and liberation through boycotts as not only unworthy of their consideration, but as essentially violent and bigoted demands.

But despite all the efforts to marginalize and toxify the Palestinian “other”, scholars and students who are committed to real anti-racism and decolonization see right through the mirage and call out the university’s claim of being anti-racist for the chimaera that it is, not just in the case of anti-Palestinian racism but in other forms of racism, as well.

As university administrators build ties across settler colonies, and cement the university within systems of apartheid and settler colonialism, academics and students are building their own ties and cementing their position as the true carriers of the anti-racist and de-colonial project. We don’t boast multimillion-dollar partnerships and contracts, but we do boast something that these university senior administrations do not have. It is something more substantive, real, ever-lasting, and worthy of our commitment and effort: an honest pursuit of truth and justice.

M.Muhannad Ayyash is Associate Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada