Federal Science Minister Gary Goodyear is under fire from academics for asking the council that funds social science research in Canada to reconsider its support of a conference on the future of Israel and Palestine that will take place in Toronto later this month.
But many Jewish groups say they are pleased he has decided to intervene, although it is unclear whether the $19,750 in federal support will be withdrawn. They say the conference, organized by York University in Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston and to be held June 22-24, questions Israel's right to exist.
The conference, Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace, received the grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, or SSHRC, earlier this year. The decision to award the money was made by a peer review committee composed of scholars from a number of disciplines.
Sharryn Aiken, a law professor at Queen's University and one of the organizers, says the idea is to bring academics with diverse ideas together to look for a way out of the current impasse, and to look at alternatives to the "two-state" solution.
She is Jewish and says she is distressed by the reaction of her community and surprised and disappointed at Mr. Goodyear's response.
"We set out to create a forum that would facilitate a lively exchange from diverse perspectives," Prof. Aiken said. Most of the 54 confirmed speakers are academics from universities around the world, she said, and one in four are Israeli.
Mr. Goodyear has asked SSHRC president Chad Gaffield to convene a second peer-review committee to assess if the conference is still worthy of public funds, given that the initial proposal did not have details about everyone who would be speaking at the three-day conference.
"Several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic," Mr. Goodyear said in a June 5 statement. It was not widely circulated, but Gary Toft, the minister's spokesman, said it was sent to a number of Canadian Jewish media groups.
Trevor Lynn, a spokesman for SSHRC, confirmed that the minister had spoken to Dr. Gaddfield, but said he can't comment about how SSHRC will respond to the request. Other than the minister, he said, no other group or individual has complained to the council about the conference.
He said the council is looking into the matter.
Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said that universities need to be a place where controversial ideas can be debated, and that this kind of political interference to curry favour with a group of voters is unprecedented in Canada and blow to academic freedom.
"The action of the Minister of Science and Technology contacting the president of SSHRC to express political concerns is not something we have seen in this country since the McCarthy period," he said.
Mr. Turk said that Mr. Goodyear should resign.
But Howard English, vice-president of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto, said the minister did the right thing.
"We are very worried about the conference," he said, noting that it is focusing on a one-state solution.
"A one-state solution by definition denies the existence of a Jewish state," Mr. English said.
Another group, the Jewish Defence League, has been regularly protesting against the conference at York and is planning a larger demonstration once it opens.
B'nai Brith Canada has put out an "action alert," saying the conference "calls into question the Jewish state's "very right to exist and promises to be a veritable 'who's who' of anti-Israel propagandists."
But Prof. Aiken said that anyone who has concerns should look at the conference's website and see the calibre and range of speakers, which include a few people who are not academics but who have written extensively on the topic.
The Conservative government has moved Canada's Middle East policy to a staunchly pro-Israel stand, voting with its small block of allies at the UN and expressing sympathy during Israel's military offensives in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in January.
It has also taken a tough position with groups in Canada like the Canadian Arab Federation, which it considers hyper-critical of Israel. Earlier this year Immigration Minister Jason Kenney cut off CAF's funding after the group criticized him, and argued it promotes hate; he also barred pro-Palestinian British MP George Galloway from Canada.
But the Conservatives have shifted slightly in recent months, issuing some mild criticism of Israel's policies by echoing U.S. President Barack Obama's call for all settlement construction on the West Bank to cease.
With a report from Campbell Clark