Let’s curb the hyperbole about York

There’s no denying that York University’s 50th anniversary year has had ups and downs, wrote Eric Lawee, professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and acting director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York, in the Canadian Jewish News July 2. Most obviously, although the “winter term” did finally end, it did so in June, after a strike that shut down classes at York for months.

The campus is now relatively quiet but loud rumblings from within segments of the Jewish community continue to reverberate when it comes to York, especially regarding anti-Israel activities on campus and the adverse impact they have on the quality of the Jewish student experience. Some verdicts have been especially harsh, wrote Lawee. For example, a full page ad in the National Post published by a prominent Jewish advocacy organization gave York a “report card” in which the University received straight “Fs” in subjects such as “providing balanced, intellectual academic debate,” “preventing anti-Israel agitators from spewing hatred,” and “ensuring Jewish students are not marginalized and intimidated.” The only passing grade (an “A+” no less) was for “seeking community support while anti-Jewish activity takes place on campus.”

To be sure, supporters of Israel and many Jewish students have had much to lament in recent months, not the least of which is a conference held at York last week that, while ostensibly “mapping paths to peace” in “Israel/Palestine,” featured a raft of virulent Israel-bashers, including some who routinely deploy the scurrilous language of “Israeli apartheid” and seek a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse – that is, the founding of a “bi-national state” on the ruins of the Jewish one.

York has also gained unenviable notoriety due to strident anti-Israel demonstrations on campus and a deplorable incident in which police intervention was required to escort besieged students from the University Hillel. In that case and others in recent years, the University’s response has been slow and muted. Little wonder that many are upset and others outraged, wrote Lawee.

Before, however, declaring York the academic equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah (or Durban II), I would urge consideration of the matsav (situation) at my home institution in an enlarged perspective. Here are some items that I think merit consideration as we seek to achieve positive outcomes on a campus that is still home to more Jewish students than any other in Canada.

First, a little history. Jewish studies at York, and a strong Jewish presence there, stretches back to the University’s inception. York augmented its early commitment to the field of Jewish studies by creating a Centre for Jewish Studies (CJS) in 1989, the first interdisciplinary research and teaching centre in Jewish Studies in Canada. The CJS now has a new name, the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, due to the centre’s generous endowment by the Koschitzky family. The centre’s ability to promote Jewish studies on campus and beyond has never been greater. Such things do not happen in an institutional vacuum. York’s support has been unstinting and continues unabated, so no failing grade here.

York also boasts a new Jewish studies program that allows students to major and minor in the field. It was created with strong encouragement from York’s upper echelons. Some program offerings are rare in any university outside Israel, such as courses conducted in Hebrew with texts studied in the Hebrew original. By their nature, such courses attract smaller enrolments, so sustaining them requires support from department chairs and deans. At York, such support has routinely been forthcoming, wrote Lawee.

York encompasses innovative initiatives such as the Jewish Teacher Education Program, which trains students to teach in a range of Jewish day schools and the Mark and Gail Appel Program in Holocaust and Anti-Racism Education, which helps York students and partner universities in Canada, Germany, and Poland develop curricular responses to racism and anti-Semitism. For these “A+” programs, the University deserves credit rather than blanket vilification as a place where Jewish students are “marginalized and intimidated” or, as a petition I recently saw proclaimed, a place characterized by “hate and intimidation targeting Jewish students.”

But what about Israel? Again, without discounting unacceptable incidents that have occurred at York and some of the disturbing larger trends that they betoken (trends that, sad to say, are hardly limited to York or to university campuses), I would note that York has just inaugurated a program that brings a visiting Israel studies professor from Israel to campus each year to do research, teach, and give public lectures.

Needless to say, the visiting professorship promotes academic ends, not political advocacy. At the same time, by teaching students at the undergraduate and graduate levels (and the wider community, through public lectures) about Israel’s challenges, achievements, shortcomings and endless complexities in a nuanced way, using a variety of scholarly approaches, the Israel studies visiting professors take students beyond the screaming headlines – and the screaming demonstrators who too often populate York’s Vari Hall.

As scholars who model and impart habits of rigorous, open-minded critical analysis, these professors serve, as all professors should, as an antidote to tendentious propagandizing of any sort, Israel-related or otherwise. In addition to communal support, the program receives strong support, moral and financial, from York, and should be counted as another feather in York’s cap, wrote Lawee.

And speaking of Israel, it’s worth remembering York’s generous policy,  unmatched in Canada as far as I know, when it comes to granting university credits to students who spend a year in Israel studying at yeshivot, seminaries, or like institutions after high school.

Of course, for students on campus, the quality of the University experience has much to do with the extra-curricular sphere. Here, York students enjoy advantages hard to find on too many other North American campuses, from the vibrancy of York’s Hillel, to the variety of the speakers of Jewish interest who appear on campus, to the delightful cuisine of the kosher cafeteria (the latter a true rarity on a North American campus). Let us note also that when some years back York Hillel invited Daniel Pipes – a strong but controversial, pro-Israel voice – to speak on campus, the administration of the day made sure he was able to do so, despite strenuous protests from many on campus, and beyond, wrote Lawee.

Other aspects of some of the attacks on York emanating from the Jewish community trouble me, apart from their lack of balance. For one, although I am the first to agree that what happens at universities matters and has repercussions far beyond the campus commons, I worry that the focus on York is becoming too total, displacing other pressing priorities. A full-page ad in a major newspaper is a major expenditure. Are those dollars really best spent attacking York?

More than I worry about the allocation of scarce community resources, however, I worry about our community’s ability to keep its head and retain its own sense of “balance” in challenging times. In addition to that petition mentioned earlier, entitled “Stop York University Hate and Intimidation Targeting Jewish Students,” I recently received an e-mail that spoke of “the bigotry and racist agenda of York University towards Israel and the Jewish community.” Fighting words those, but also ones that are wholly unjustified. Leave aside the fact that there really is no monolith called “York University” but only the messy parts of a complex and dynamic whole, typically acting autonomously from one another. The point is that such baseless criticism diminishes the Jewish community’s credibility on campus and threatens to destroy much that has been painstakingly built – and will not easily be rebuilt or replaced.

Perhaps more importantly, criticisms such as these are simply unfair to the many at York who expend time, energy, and resources in order to enhance Jewish life on campus, build academic Jewish studies and, yes, even help to sustain events and programs that benefit the embattled Jewish state. (For example, York International, York’s international education office, contributes to our successful efforts to send a large contingent of York students to study at Israeli universities on a yearly basis.)

Evidence-based responsible criticism is the lifeblood of the university and any university worthy of the name should welcome it. We must engage in trenchant criticism where appropriate, while also remembering to bestow praise where deserved. But we should leave the rhetoric of blanket demonization, whether shrill or sophisticated (the latter being increasingly the more dangerous form when it comes to the assault on Israel within the academy) to the anti-Israel zealots who, as we know, paint a fraudulently one-sided picture of a country living amidst an extremely complex and often unspeakably trying reality, wrote Lawee.

As we formulate our letters, petitions, and advertisements, let us recall Pirkei Avot’s wise maxim: “Scholars, be careful with your words.” Let our community be distinguished by prudent, fair-minded, lucid thought and discriminating, measured speech – on campus and off.

Local football players take next step

There are many ways to measure the success of a sports program, wrote Scott Hadow in The Sudbury Star July 7. In my opinion, there is no better way than looking at the number of athletes who move on to the post-secondary level to compete.

York University has yielded the biggest catch from Sudbury with five players [out of 10 who are trying out], and I am not surprised.

St. Benedict players Austin (offensive lineman) and Nick (outside linebacker) Roy and Sam Long (offensive lineman) will all go to York to take their shot. They will be joined by Sudbury Gladiators running back Mike Drabit, from Thunder Bay and Lockerby defensive lineman Colton Bonnah. Austin, Long and Bonnah also play for the Gladiators.

Why am I not surprised? Well, way back in October I wrote a small blurb in my weekly column about the York coaches coming to Sudbury to watch a Thursday Night Lights football game between St. Benedict and St. Charles. At the end of the match, I asked them if they saw anything they really liked. Their response was, “A lot.”

Octogenarian jazz legends bring down the house

More than half a century ago, when he was making albums like Jazz Goes to College and Jazz Goes to Junior College, there was something vaguely professorial about Dave Brubeck, wrote The Globe and Mail July 7 in a story about the York honorary degree holder’s latest performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Some of that had to do with his tweed jackets and horn- rimmed glasses, but mostly it was his music, which was cultured, well schooled, yet never afraid of exploring new ideas.

After a smattering of standards, Brubeck introduced his son, Matt Brubeck, a cellist (and a grad student in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts). Then, finally, it was time for Time Out. Brubeck Sr. began by describing the rhythmic structure of Three to Get Ready, and the band dove in. Alto saxophonist Bobby Militello’s solo was flashy and prolix, Matt Brubeck’s was melodically fluid and rhythmically deft, and his father’s bit was harmonically ambitious though relatively short.

Art displayed at restaurant

Sri Lankan-born and Toronto-based artist Frances Ferdinands (BA Spec. Hons. ’74) is displaying a collection – Fashion Meets Art – at Lola’s Lounge on Christina Street until Sept. 30, wrote The Sarnia Observer July 7.

While she’s shown in exhibitions from Paris to Honolulu, the US and Canada, it’s the first time Ferdinands has displayed her work in a restaurant. She said she chose Lola’s because the work and the setting are hip, fashionable and cheeky. “I thought it was the perfect marriage of the environment and the art,” she said.

On air

  • Pat Bradshaw, professor of organizational behaviour and industrial relations in the Schulich School of Business at York University spoke about her latest study of the make-up of non-profit corporate boards on 680News Radio’s “Weekend Business” program July 5.