Words from Arij Al Khafagi’s appeal hearing

U of M professor Ben Baader on academic freedom, antisemitism and Israel-Palestine

Many of you may have heard that a discipline committee at the faculty of health sciences has overturned the suspension of the fourth-year nursing student Arij Al Khafagi. The discipline committee was staffed by four faculty members and four student representatives from different schools and programs in health sciences, and it is part of the democratic structures of self-government at the University of Manitoba.

The administration — and even university president Michael Benarroch, if he wanted to — does not have the right to intervene into these independent university disciplinary processes. We can be proud to have these structures of independent self-government, and we should defend them vigorously, if need be. Thus, I was honoured to be the spokesperson for Al Khafagi at the appeal hearing on Jan. 17, and I would like to share here some of what I said at the hearing.

Al Khafagi’s social media posts and the charges of discrimination and antisemitism

The social media posts on the basis of which Arij Al Khafagi was suspended were neither hateful nor threatening. They were forceful political commentary in a dramatic historical situation. They were not discriminatory. In fact, the word “discriminatory” is misplaced in respect to Al Khafagi’s posts.

“Discrimination,” according to the U of M Disclosures and Complaints Policy that defines these terms for the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy, is “differential treatment” of individuals or groups.

In general, this does not apply here. And in particular, Al Khafagi’s posts did not constitute discrimination against Jews. Al Khafagi’s critical commentary did not target Jews as Jews, or even Israelis as Israelis. Her posts critiqued Israeli soldiers and the Israeli government.

This is evident from the posts themselves. And it is made even more obvious in Al Khafagi’s follow-up posts, in which she applauded Jews who publicly demanded a ceasefire in Gaza. Arguably, Al Khafagi calling Israel “Shitrael” is disrespectful, but her posts featured neither threats, nor anti-Jewish stereotypes, nor any hostility against Jews. In fact, many Jews hold political positions in line with Al Khafagi’s posts.

What is playing out here is a political disagreement, with both Jews and non-Jews on either side of the fence. All of this has nothing at all to do with religion or faith, or even Jewishness as an ethnicity.

The most controversial post might be the one that shows an Israeli soldier pointing a gun at a woman in a hijab on the ground, and in the mirror in front of them, a Nazi soldier pointing a gun at an emaciated Jewish man. And the caption reads, “the irony of becoming what you once hated.” This type of political commentary that accuses Israelis of behaving like Nazis is commonplace among Jews and non-Jews.

Similar statements and comparisons have been part of Jewish and Israeli political discourses for decades, at least since the Israeli public intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a committed Zionist (d. 1994), coined the term “Judeo-Nazis.” Leibowitz warned that Israeli soldiers who served in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after Israel captured these territories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war became “Judeo-Nazis” when violently dominating another people.

Many Holocaust survivors and their descendants have made statements along the same lines. In fact, in a rather inflationary comparison, Reuben Moscowitz, who survived the Shoah in Rumania, went as far as to state in 2010 that “what I went through during the Holocaust … the besieged Palestinian children [in Gaza] are going through.” Academic Norman G. Finkelstein compared Israel’s military occupation to the Nazi regime.

Thus, one might find it inappropriate or even offensive for a non-Jew to compare Israelis to Nazis, but this is not threatening, does not stereotype, and it does not target Jews as a group, religious or otherwise. According to established standards of what constitutes antisemitism, this is not antisemitic.

Along the same lines, calling Israel “Shitrael” is disrespectful, but it is not antisemitic. And calling the Israeli government and army “terrorist” is sharp political commentary in dark and dramatic times, but it is not antisemitic. In fact, the Pope himself has recently called the Israeli acts in Gaza terrorist.

The controversy about defining antisemitism

I use a scholarly, well-established definition of antisemitism. Yet in 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) formulated an expanded and politicized definition of antisemitism, according to which certain critical statements, including “comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” are antisemitic.

In the past decade, the community-driven IHRA has engaged in extensive lobbying. As a result, a significant number of institutions and governments, including the government of Manitoba, have adopted the non-legally binding IHRA definition of antisemitism.

However, this definition is widely contested, most vehemently in the academic world. 128 scholars, who called the IHRA definition “vague and weaponized,” urged the United Nations not to adopt it.

Likewise, 210 of the most distinguished scholars in Jewish studies, Middle East studies and Holocaust history (today about 350 signatories) published the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism in 2020, which provides a more specific, and less politicized definition of antisemitism. According to the Jerusalem Declaration, Al Khafagi’s comparison of an Israeli soldier to a Nazi soldier is not antisemitic.

Academic institutions have since struggled under the pressure of various interest groups that urge them to adopt one or the other definition of antisemitism. An exemplary case is the University of Toronto, which in 2020 installed an Antisemitism Working Group. In its final report, the working group recommended that the U of T not adopt any of the recently proposed definitions on antisemitism. It noted that the university is “a place in which difficult and controversial questions” need to be addressed freely.

And the working group pointed to the university’s principled commitment to “freedom of inquiry and open debate […] The university does not take positions on social or political issues, apart from those directly pertinent to higher education and academic research. Instead, its role is to provide a forum within which issues can be studied carefully and debated vigorously.”

These principles should be honoured at the University of Manitoba, too. Thus, I applaud the faculty of health sciences appeal committee for exonerating Al Khafagi from the politicized charges of antisemitism and discrimination and for thereby defending the freedom of political contestation at the university.

About free political expression and codes that enforce civility

Now, let me talk briefly about the relationship between the civil space of political contestation, and the concept of a respectful work and learning environment, which was evoked in the proceedings against Arij Al Khafagi.

In fact, the ideal of a polite, well-tempered and conflict-free work and learning environment and the principle of open political debate exist in some tension to each other. Therefore, the U of M’s Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy stresses the values of dignity and self-esteem, diversity, equity and inclusion.

But the only two violations that the policy is concerned with are discrimination and harassment. The policy is not designed to protect students, staff or faculty from ideas or opinions of other members of the university community that they disagree with or find offensive.

And this is the way things need to be, because, as the U of T report quotes from the University’s Statement of Institutional Purpose, “in the unique university context, the most crucial […] rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of research. […] These rights are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and” at times challenge “cherished beliefs.”

This means that discomfort and hurt feelings are at times the price of open debate, and they do not constitute discrimination. These facts are also beautifully and clearly put into words by the 2019 Statement on Freedom of Expression at the University of Alberta:

“Members of the university community have the right to criticize and question other views expressed on our campuses, but may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with others’ freedom of expression. Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral or misguided.

“It is for individuals, not the institution, to make those judgments for themselves and to act not by seeking to suppress expression, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose. The university does not attempt to shield members of the university community from ideas or opinions they disagree with or find offensive. Mutual respect and civility are valued, but their absence does not constitute sufficient justification to limit free expression (emphasis mine).”

At the University of Manitoba, we are in dire need of a policy that enshrines and protects the right of free expression for everyone on campus along the lines that this U of A Statement on Freedom of Expression and the U of T Statement of Institutional Purpose do.

The entanglement of emotions and political interests

Finally, I wish to address the issue of safety, or more precisely, the issue that members of the university community reported feeling unsafe or frightened by Al Khafagi’s posts.

First of all, these are terrible times, and anyone who has some connection to the Middle East lives in a state of anxiety and is emotionally strained. The horrific massacres, rapes and abductions of Israelis by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023 have triggered massive fears among Jews.

As a scholar of Jewish history, I could tell much about the history of persecution and discrimination that East European Jews faced in the past 300 years, while at other times Jews have often experienced centuries of stability, peace and prosperity.

Yet Canadian Jewry stems for the most part from Eastern Europe, including a very large group of Holocaust survivors, and its historical memory is understandably shaped by these events. It is fair to say that Canadian Jews as a group live with significant ancestral trauma.

Moreover, Canadian Jewry has experienced more than a century of substantial antisemitic discrimination and hostility within Canada. This only really shifted with the rise of multiculturalism in the 1970s. University quotas and restrictions on beaches and real estate, for instance, were lifted in Canada much later than in the United States.

Against this background, the founding of the state of Israel after the Shoah (Holocaust) has played an immense role for the self-esteem and sense of security of Canadian Jews as a group. Many Jews intensely identify with Israel. They believe that Israel guarantees the safety of diaspora Jews, and that critique of Israeli politics endangers them. These feelings are real as feelings, and they have fuelled the accusations against Al Khafagi.

Yet on the other side, what is currently unfolding in the Middle East during the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, the enormous death toll of civilians, and the suffering and starvation of the population, is also horrific. And Palestinians, Muslims and other non-Jews with Middle Eastern roots, are in distress, along with Jews and Israelis.

As a group, Palestinians and Muslims have their own history of displacement and colonial violence in Palestine and beyond, and many have lived through discrimination and racist assaults in Canada. They are frightened, too. Thus, everyone is emotionally on edge, and rightfully so. Some experience the Palestinian flag as menacing, while others feel that way about the Israeli flag.

This is the context in which Al Khafagi made her social media posts, and it is the context of the accusations against her.

Yet feelings are not all that is at play here. Entangled with emotions are real political interests. Thus, some Zionist faculty at the University of Manitoba, and the Jewish student organization Hillel, hand-in-hand with the off-campus organization B’nai Birth, engage in a campaign of reporting what they experience as hateful and frightening speech, and what they consider antisemitic.

They do so out of fear for Israel and for themselves, and in a calculated maneuver to support the current Israeli war effort. This local engagement here in Winnipeg is part of a larger campaign across North American campuses.

On the other side of course, the public support for Al Khafagi has been partially driven by political sympathies for the Palestinian cause. But not everyone who has expressed concern about this case is committed to pro-Palestinian or anti-colonial politics.

For many, what is at stake here, most importantly, is the right of free political contestation in a dramatic situation of war and destruction. The conflict in the Middle East is long standing and enormously complex, and in a university setting there needs to be space for a large range of views and political expressions about this conflict — including expressions that make some of us uncomfortable.

Afterword

Arij Al Khafagi’s social media posts were neither hateful, nor threatening or discriminatory, and they did not deploy antisemitic stereotypes. They were forceful political commentary in an extraordinarily tense historical moment. Thus, it is only reasonable and fair that Al Khafagi was cleared of all charges of discrimination and antisemitism and that she was reinstated as a student in good standing. This outcome is good for all of us. Al Khafagi’s right of free political expression is Haskel Greenfield’s right to insult me publicly.

However, not everything is fine now. Can we trust that the ruling of the health sciences appeal committee will set a precedent for a university-wide approach of how allegations of antisemitism and discrimination are handled, when Israeli politics or actions are being criticized?

And even if this was the case, students in professional programs need to be aware that the codes of conduct or codes of ethics of their school can be used against them. In fact, all students have to be wary of charges of non-academic misconduct, which the recently revised Student Non-Academic Misconduct and Concerning Behaviour Procedure defines rather broadly.

Moreover, the Procedure declares “electronic communications, including communications through social media, where matters regarding the University or members of the University Community are a significant focus” to be “University Matters.”

This understanding of what constitutes University Matters opens the door to the scrutiny of even personal social media accounts. Thus, the generally vague and expansive language of the procedure and clauses such as the one defining University Matters are more than concerning. Together, they pose a threat to free speech and to unencumbered political contestation at the university.

The struggle to defend the civil space of controversy and political debate has just begun. Of course, true discrimination or harassment cannot be tolerated. And I call on all of us to be as respectful as we can and to consider as much as possible the feelings and experiences of those with whom we disagree.

However, any compromise on the free expression of political views and of controversial perspectives on current or past political events jeopardizes the educational and scholarly essence of the academy. Inquiry into and vigorous argument about complex and uncomfortable issues are crucial to the mission of the university.

As the battle about what can be said and written about the war and the decades-long conflict in the Middle East rages on university campuses worldwide, it is our task to defend and to cultivate the civil space of unfettered debate, academic freedom and free political expression at the University of Manitoba.

Dr. Benjamin M. Baader is an associate professor in the history department at the University of Manitoba, specializing in European history and Jewish history.