Skip to main content
konrad yakabuski

Paul Bronfman, of all people, should understand the concept of artistic freedom. The Toronto film-industry mogul is on the board of the Canadian Academy of Cinema and Television, which just announced the nominees for this country's version of the Oscars. Among the movies up for Best Picture is Remember, which stars Christopher Plummer as a dementia-suffering Holocaust survivor seeking to avenge his family's murder. A Guardian reviewer gave the film one star out of five.

That's the thing about art: It's in the eye of the beholder.

Mr. Bronfman has every right to describe a mural at York University, which depicts a rock-holding Palestinian eyeing a bulldozer clearing the way for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as a "piece of garbage," as he did in the Canadian Jewish News. But the irony of him calling for it to be taken down seems lost on him.

Mr. Bronfman, whose TV and film production business has donated equipment and training to York's Cinema & Media Arts program, vowed to end his support after the university refused to order removal of the artwork. "Freedom of expression is one of York's guiding principles," the school explained. Legal experts told York that it couldn't compel its removal if it wanted to.

Would that were the end of it. York may have made the right call regarding the painting, but its campus remains a cauldron of anti-Israel activism in Canada. Many Jewish students say they face increasing hostility at York, which, along with the University of Western Ontario, is the Canadian campus with the largest number of Jewish undergraduates, according to a 2015 ranking by Hillel International. The mural has thus taken on added freight as a symbol of the suffocatingly anti-Israel orthodoxy that reigns at York and other Canadian schools.

That's no reason to take it down. But the controversy should be basis for serious reflection among York's administration and student leaders alike about the widespread intolerance toward, and attempts to silence, supporters of Israel on campus. York is hardly alone in this.

Campuses across North America have become scary places for many Jews as the unsubtle Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and chapters of Students Against Israeli Apartheid wage relentless campaigns that are often difficult to distinguish from anti-Semitism.

Canadian campuses were singled out for their hostile climate toward Jews in a 2015 study by Brandeis University Jewish Studies professor Leonard Saxe, who surveyed more than 3,000 Jewish students at North American schools.

"We found that Jewish students at Canadian schools feel more anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hostility than students at U.S. schools, except for University of California campuses," Prof. Saxe said in an e-mail exchange. "One reason is that Canadian Jewish students are more highly identified as Jewish, are more visible targets and more concerned about hostility associated with their ethnicity-religion."

Lest this be construed as suggesting Canadian Jewish students are just more sensitive to criticism of Israel, a glance at the tone of anti-Zionist pamphleteering that circulates on campuses, some of it claiming to pass for student journalism, should correct the impression that both sides are given a fair hearing in this campus debate.

It is entirely legitimate to criticize Israel's defiant construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon again this week called "an affront to the Palestinian people and the international community." But there is nothing uncomplicated about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet the terms "apartheid," "racism" and "war crimes" steamroll over its discussion on campus.

The settlements are an obstacle to peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. They call into question Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to a two-state solution. But the settlements are not the cause of the conflict. And, as the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, reminded the Security Council this week, "settlement activity can never in itself be an excuse for violence."

Only the mural's artist, Ahmad Al Abid, knows what he intended to convey in his painting. Personally, I see Palestinian frustration and impotence more than the "purely anti-Semitic hate propaganda" Mr. Bronfman sees. But since he's far from alone in his view, York should seize on this controversy to do what universities are supposed to do: open minds.

"The response of college officials can make a difference," Prof. Saxe explained "Each incident should be seen as an opportunity to educate students, not merely referee a dispute."

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct