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Blog January 12, 2024

Academic Freedom, Weaponized Antisemitism, and the Big Chill

“I always thought that, as a researcher, if I based my arguments on rigorous research and had the facts on my side, that would be enough. Now, I’m not so sure. For the first time in my professional life, I’m afraid of the consequences for speaking out.”

The process of writing our blog post on how the political weaponization of antisemitism might affect potential online harms legislation has left me with no illusions that Canada is currently facing the greatest threat to free expression and academic freedom in my lifetime.

Sometime in November, about a month into Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, itself in retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attacks, Natasha Tusikov, my writing partner, tenured professor at York University and spouse, told me she wanted to write something on how the charged post-October 7 environment might change the debate over the federal government’s long-promised online-harms legislation. Like me, she has been following the legislation’s lackadaisical progress for years. She has also written on academic freedom in the face of hate-motivated violence against academics.

But she didn’t want to write it on her own. More precisely, she feared that, as a woman academic, having a solo byline – especially in this environment – would leave her more exposed to verbal attacks, doxxing and possibly worse. Sharing a byline with a male colleague, she hoped, would dampen any such dangerous, unacceptable behaviour.

Natasha’s concerns were the first indication that our thinking as academics was changing. Natasha doesn’t scare easily; she’s written plenty of opeds that have attracted criticism.

Study after study shows that women academics and journalists, as well as those in other marginalized groups, are subject to significantly more online abuse than their male counterparts.

But this is something more.

Since October 7, this dynamic has been supercharged in a way I’ve never seen in my almost-40 years of closely following Canadian politics. It recalls the worst excesses of 1950s Red Scare McCarthyism in the United States.

As we mention in our previous online harms post, political criticisms of Israeli policy and support for Palestinians has been met with blacklists of law students that law firms have sworn never to hire for signing a petition, the suspension of Dr. Yipeng Ge from his University of Ottawa residency, a Minister in the Ontario legislature naming and accusing several academics of “supporting Hamas.” Other examples, of threats or retaliation against workers and students, are easy to find, including several in this CBC report

In Parliament, the McCarthy wing of the Liberal Party, taking a page from the US Republican Party’s ongoing vendetta against higher education, is attempting to summon the heads of “Canada’s 25 biggest universities” (which somehow includes the relatively small University of Winnipeg) to answer for “how they are tackling the rise of #antisemitism on campus & whether a call for genocide against Jews violates their code of conduct.”

Calls to genocide, of course, are illegal under Canada’s criminal code, but education is under provincial, not federal, jurisdiction. However, as the letter makes clear, this McCarthyite group, which includes a former Justice Minister and Attorney General, is more interested in shutting down political discussion than keeping Canadian Jews safe from hate crimes.

As we unpack below, the letter conflates calls for genocide against Jews – an actual hate crime – with political criticism of Israel – which is legal in Canada. It also seeks to interfere in the inner workings of student newspapers in the name of preventing “them from becoming hostile environments for … Jewish students,” which should give pause to anyone who believes in freedom of the press.

The Big Chill

This is something new, and it’s already having an effect on academics, including us. Both Natasha and I were nervous to even write this piece. We’ve written plenty of things that have garnered plenty of criticism. But we know that criticism of Israeli politics, even by someone like myself, with a PhD in Political Science and a focus on International Relations (i.e., someone who can claim some expertise in issues like war), is a third rail in Canadian politics and academia. The unprecedented retributive attacks on Palestinian supporters and critics of Israel merely surfaced this tension.

But the gravity of our situation really hit home in conversations we had with junior and senior colleagues, in Canada and elsewhere, about the piece. 

Their reaction, to a person, was the same: They all agreed with what we were saying, but to a person told us that they wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing it.

This is a big deal. When tenured academics – the people in society with the most protection when it comes to expressing unpopular opinions, and who are usually not shy to expound on anything – tell you that they are afraid to voice a considered opinion publicly for fear of retaliation, we should listen. It means that the very process of inquiry and knowledge-creation that powers our society is breaking down.

Most disturbing was what a junior, untenured colleague told us: “I always thought that, as a researcher, if I based my arguments on rigorous research and had the facts on my side, that would be enough. Now, I’m not so sure. For the first time in my professional life, I’m afraid of the consequences for speaking out.”

Their comments suggest how our universities, from administration through to senior colleagues, have failed to meet this threat to academic freedom. This McCarthyite campaign of fear is having its intended effect: it’s shutting down debate, both inside universities and in political life.

Questioning Definitions

Attempts to silence criticisms of Israel, including government policies and military strategies, are incompatible with both the pursuit of scientific knowledge in a free society and the exercise of democracy itself.

I’ve not seen the challenge better phrased anywhere than in the 2021 Report of the University of Toronto Antisemitism Working Group. It’s a document that expresses a wisdom I didn’t know a working group was capable of producing; it should be required reading for anyone interested in these issues.

It quotes approvingly from U of T’s Statement of Institutional Purpose:

Within the unique university context, the most crucial of all human rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of research. And we affirm that these rights are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself. 

It is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit.

The Working Group also notes that academic freedom does not require members of the University “to be even-handed or neutral on controversial questions, or to focus their attention on the questions that others might take to be most urgent.”

It explicitly rejects the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of antisemitism, in part because both proponents and opponents of the definition agreed on its potential to chill academic inquiry. This concern is echoed forcefully by the working definition’s principal author, Kenneth Stern, who argues that its potential for political weaponization makes it unsuitable for academia. Regarding its improper use in an academic setting (in this case, in the United States), he writes:

If you think this isn’t about suppressing political speech, contemplate a parallel. There’s no definition of anti-black racism that has the force of law when evaluating a title VI case. If you were to craft one, would you include opposition to affirmative action? Opposing removal of Confederate statues?

The reason such expansive definitions are inappropriate for academia and, I would argue, politics generally is because, as the Working Group suggests, it’s our job as academics to probe and poke what John Kenneth Galbraith called the “conventional wisdom.” The goal of the university is to serve as a place where we can ask precisely the questions that the McCarthy wing of the Liberal party wishes to censor. 

About that letter. It argues that, alongside calls for genocide (again, already illegal under the Criminal Code), calling for “the elimination of the State of Israel” should be “a violation of your university’s code of conduct,” the idea being that such a call is tantamount to calling for genocide. 

As academics, it’s our job to explore these assumptions, to challenge accepted definitions.  While the letter unproblematically presents such a call as tantamount to a call for genocide, a political scientist would highlight the number of unasked questions that underlie this assertion: What is a state? Do states as a category have an inherent right to exist, or does such an inalienable right involve apply to individuals (spoiler: it’s the latter)? 

Are there better possible forms of human association than the state? Aren’t there different types of states (federal, unitary, socialist, democratic, totalitarian, ethnonationalist, multiethnic, apartheid)? Is one type of state better than another? 

Or, what types of activities is it legitimate for a state to carry out in pursuit of its security? What constitutes legitimate and illegitimate actions by a state in wartime (now we’re into just war theory, an issue that’s been debated for centuries)?

As we note in our previous blog post , asking these questions is essential for the growth and development of societies. Censoring debate by claiming that questioning anything to do with the Israeli state – as the McCarthyites would have us do – is how we perpetuate misery, for Israelis and for Palestinians.

Canary in the Coal Mine

Although academic freedom formally applies only to academics, any effect on academics’ perception of their own freedom has a knock-on effect on general political debate. If the most protected people in society are afraid to express a controversial political opinion – even ones with deep roots in international law (questions of genocide and war crimes) and academic disciplines (comparative state analysis, e.g., what is an apartheid state?) – what hope is there for honest debate in the wider political sphere? A chill on academic freedom affects us all.

This is why Natasha and I decided to write this piece, despite our fears for the potential consequences. Academic freedom is useless if nobody uses it. We believe that as tenured professors, we have an obligation to speak out at a time when others are afraid to, on issues – a genocide against Palestinians that threatens Palestinians and the long-term security of Israel, the frontal attack on freedom of expression and academic freedom in Canada – of utmost importance.

In making our argument, as academics, we are drawing on our expertise and the available evidence. Our work is grounded in the normative values of promoting academic freedom, freedom of expression, universal human rights, and democratic self-determination. For those who would question our bona fides, our commitment to fighting hate speech, including antisemitism, long predates this current war, including our support of legislation to reduce hate speech online.

A Totalitarian Threat to Democracy

Democracy is based on open debate, the ability to test assumptions. 

The McCarthyist impulse to bully and censor, to tar political opponents as antisemites, is anti-democratic. It is, to be blunt, totalitarian in nature. 

Totalitarianism allows no opposition in ideas or ideology. It puts the core of politics beyond questioning. 

Alongside the obvious McCarthy parallels, this disgraceful and anti-democratic moment in our history brings to mind Leszek Kolakowski, the towering critic of Marxist thought and Soviet totalitarianism. As the late writer Clive James recounts in his appreciation of Kolakowski, as an academic living under a communist dictatorship, the Polish intellectual took seriously the formal invitations to criticize orthodox Marxism in the 1960s. He was exiled for his trouble; totalitarianism brooks no critique, no dissent.

Kolakowski’s exile transformed him into a liberal and led him to, among other places, McGill University, from 1968 to 1969. In 2003, he received the Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities from the US Library of Congress.

We can only imagine what Kolakowski, who died in 2009, would think of this homegrown totalitarian impulse to censor, of the McCarthyites, the blacklisters, the witch hunters. For my part, I’m pretty sure he’d recognize our current moment, and its enablers, for the dangers that they are.