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Blog August 12, 2020

The Professor, the Petition and the President: Professor Bhabha, B’Nai Brith, and President Lenton

On June 23, 2020, B’Nai Brith issued a press release and posted an online petition calling on York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton to bar Professor Faisal Bhabha from teaching any “human rights” course at Osgoode Hall Law School. More than six weeks later, the President has not provided an open or transparent response to B’Nai Brith’s widely publicized condemnation of Bhabha and petition to remove him from the classroom. 

The professor

B’Nai Brith’s petition arose from a panel discussion that formed part of the Virtual Forum Series at Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression (CFE). The topic for discussion at the session on June 10, 2020 was “Fighting Anti-Semitism or Silencing Critics of Israel: What’s Behind the Push for Governments to Adopt the IHRA Definition of Anti-semitism?” 

One of the panelists was Faisal Bhabha, an Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall and legal advisor to the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Before joining the law school faculty, Bhabha served as a vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. His co-panelists were Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Mosaic Institute, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Paloma Foundation; Richard Marceau, Vice-president, External Affairs & General Counsel, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs; and Sheryl Nestel, Independent Jewish Voices. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism was adopted on May 26, 2016. It defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews” and adds that “[r]hetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”. The definition is accompanied by 11 illustrations of antisemitism which, many argue, are problematic and impermissibly broad. Governments, cities, and a range of institutions, including universities like York University, have come under pressure to adopt this definition and its illustrations.  At this time it is under consideration in the Ontario legislature (See Bill 168 2019, the Combating Antisemitism Act 2019). 

The CFE panel discussion was timely, provocative, and balanced as to point of view. Over a period of 90 minutes, the debate exposed strong convictions for and against the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, and was at times feisty.  

The petition

B’Nai Brith’s demand for Bhabha’s removal from human rights teaching was based on his participation in this panel.  B’Nai Brith focused, in particular, on two isolated statements he made in back and forth discussion with other panelists. 

According to the petition, Bhabha stated that “Zionism is about Jewish supremacy” and equated it with white supremacy. B’Nai Brith denounced that as a “false and dangerous allegation” about Zionism. 

The petition also pointed to Bhabha’s observation that “accusing Israel of exaggerating the Holocaust could be, for some, a plausible argument”.  On its face this is an opinion or observation that relates to and responds to one of the IHRA definition’s 11 illustrations. The petition treated it differently, escalating the remark and pronouncing it “a preposterous canard with no supporting evidence” that is “likely to sow hatred and division where no basis for it exists”.  The petition went on to condemn “any version of human rights” that does not firmly reject antisemitism” as “ethically and morally bankrupt.”  

B’Nai Brith’s hard-hitting press release, titled “Tell York University: Human Rights Apply to Jews, Too”, asserted that Bhabha had “smeared this country’s Jewish community” and should be “disqualified from teaching a human-rights course”. B’Nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn categorically stated that “someone who believes” the statements above is “clearly unfit to teach anyone about human rights.” (my emphasis) 

The petition and press release carefully skirted the edges of defamation law. Rather than name him, B’Nai Brith abstracted Bhabha, denouncing “any version of human rights” associated with the statements he made, and stating that “someone who believes” what he said is unfit to teach human rights.

B’Nai Brith sought to maximize the damage to Bhabha, posting these materials online to ensure they travelled far and wide. Not surprisingly, the petition and press release swirled online and around the world. A casual online search shows that B’Nai Brith’s petition was picked up by The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Center for Public Affairs, United with Israel, the Middle East Monitor, the Jewish Journal, the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and Combat Anti-semitism, among others. 

B’Nai Brith’s petition and press release publicly and – in candid terms, brutally – impugned Bhabha’s professional standing as a human rights teacher, scholar, and activist. In doing so, the petition quite unfairly singled two statements out and decontextualized those comments from their setting in vehement exchanges between panelists. Anyone who doubts this should watch the podcast of the session available here.

Significantly, B’Nai Brith pressured the President of York University to order Bhabha not to teach human rights. In doing so, it advocated and all but incited the university to violate his rights of expressive and academic freedom. 

The President

In the circumstances, ignoring the petition was not an option for President Lenton. Rather, it was imperative for her to clear Bhabha’s name and reputation, vindicate his expressive and academic freedom, and defend the university from outside interference.

So far the President has maintained stolid silence in the public forum.  She was repeatedly asked to make a public statement, by members of the community – including myself – as well as by the Osgoode Hall Faculty Association (OHFA), the York University Faculty Association (YUFA), and Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). To this point she has not done so publicly or in any open, transparent way. President Lenton has not acted on B’Nai Brith’s demand, but nor has she denounced its attack on Bhabha or resisted its interference in university affairs. By all appearances, she has instead done nothing.

Yet the President has been active behind the scenes. Some who communicated their concerns to her received a response, though others did not. More to the point, by letter dated July 14th, she corresponded directly and privately with B’Nai Brith’s Mostyn. On request, President Lenton made this letter available to the OHFA executive. 

Her responses in this correspondence include boilerplate statements about academic and expressive freedom, tempered by a caveat of zero tolerance for hate or racism. At best, the usual platitudes offer little more than a generic – and quite frankly, anodyne – defence of these freedoms. Moreover, and without clarifying  what she is referring to, the President distanced herself from Bhabha’s remarks, recognizing that many consider his statements “deeply offensive and upsetting”.  Remarkably, the correspondence makes no direct mention of the petition, the demand for Bhabha’s removal from the classroom, or the claim that “someone who believes” what he said is “clearly unfit” for human rights teaching.

In short, the President has provided no response to B’Nai Brith’s widely publicized attack on Bhabha, either privately (from what has been disclosed) or publicly. That attack is not only profoundly insulting but, to use the President’s own words, deeply offensive and upsetting to Bhabha and members of the community who value these freedoms.

It needs be emphasized that Bhabha’s participation in the CFE panel, including the two statements relied on in B’Nai Brith’s petition, were well within the scope of his rights of expressive and academic freedom. There really should be no doubt of that. This can be confirmed by anyone who views the podcast, which, as noted, is available here.

The further point is that the petition is not only about Bhabha. In impugning his stature as an instructor, B’Nai Brith challenged the integrity of teaching at the law school and university. B’Nai Brith’s attempt to impose its view of antisemitism and exact coercive sanctions against a respected member of the community marks a serious interference in university affairs.  The President’s failure to address this and defend York University’s autonomy from outside interference is truly alarming.            

We deserve better

It was critical for President Lenton to provide an open and transparent response to a petition addressed to her and calling for her to remove Bhabha from human rights teaching. Instead, her action shows little awareness that in this she and the university administration are accountable to Bhabha, the law school, and the community at large. The President’s actions – which include a letter and phone call to Mostyn – suggest that re-assuring B’Nai Brith was a higher priority than refuting serious allegations against a full-time member of faculty.   

From any perspective, the President’s failure to take steps vindicating Bhabha’s rights of expressive and academic freedom and re-asserting institutional autonomy is unacceptable. This lapse in leadership can and should briefly be set in the broader context of recent developments at York University.

Following a violent incident on York campus (November 20, 2019), York University commissioned an Independent Review from retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell. The Cromwell Report, which was completed on April 30, 2020 and is publicly available, provided a comprehensive review of the University’s rules on extra-curricular activities by student organizations. That review generated extensive recommendations, many of which rest on and require an underlying commitment to transparency. That is because a lack of transparency in York’s rules and processes is one of the Report’s central themes. 

In the context of a petition against a member of her academic community, the President has fallen short in failing both to grasp and internalize the value of transparency. Her refusal to provide an open and timely response to B’Nai Brith’s attack on Professor Bhabha is deeply concerning.  

B’Nai Brith’s call for action ends by stating that students at York University and Osgoode Hall “deserve better”. In point of fact, it is Bhabha and the York University community who deserve better from President Lenton and the university administration.

*Jamie Cameron, Professor emeritus, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. I note that Faisal Bhabha is a colleague, or former colleague, of mine. Professor Bhabaa is a member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Free Expression.