Gil Troy: No University Should Honor Mary Robinson, Who Presided over the Anti-Semitic UN Conference on Human Rights in Durban, SA

Roundup: Historians' Take

Gil Troy, in the Montreal Gazette (May 2004):

When McGill University announced it will grant an honourary doctorate to Mary Robinson, a"human rights leader," my first instinct was to be silent. I have no wish to politicize commencement, when we honour our students' achievements.

But in a world of ever-coarsening anti-Semitism and despicable rationalizations for suicide bombings, in a city which just endured the burning of a Jewish children's school library, at a university in which vandals scratched"Heil Hitler" into the bathroom of the Bronfman Building and defaced the exterior of the Hillel Jewish Student Centre, honouring Mary Robinson sends a terrible message.

As the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Robinson presided over the infamous World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. In her closing remarks, Robinson declared"we ... succeeded," a shocking statement considering that anti-Zionists hijacked the conference, demonizing Israel, bullying Jewish participants, and distributing crude anti-Semitic images of hooked-nose Jews.

In fighting modern anti-Semitism, the moral neutrality of the politically correct -- which often masks moral sloppiness or even outright bias -- is a particularly insidious problem. We need Winston Churchills, and Mary Robinson is a Neville Chamberlain. We need to hunt down hatred, yet McGill will lionize a lamb in the face of ugly verbal assaults that have come to epitomize the new anti-Semitism.

I hate talking about anti-Semitism. Despite the stereotype that Jews are hypersensitive, my generation was raised to consider Jew-hatred an outdated, European disease.

Born into North America's post-Auschwitz meritocracy, we believed that anti-Semitism had been cured along with whooping cough and polio. We were Daniel Pearl Jews, raised, as the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter was, to be citizens of the world.

Growing up in the 1970s, we believed our identities were malleable - and infinitely elastic. We believed Marlo Thomas that we were Free to Be You and Me. We learned that if we jumped through the right hoops, we could go as far as anyone else in society. We felt protected by our American or Canadian passports.

Climbing the ladder of achievement, we internalized varying amounts of good liberal guilt about our good fortune. Our relationship to oppression was as fellow crusaders fighting for justice, not potential victims.

We were empathetic not paranoid, guarding against injuring others rather than worrying about protecting ourselves. We had zero-tolerance for racism, sexism, homophobia and any kind of religious intolerance. We learned to avoid creating hostile working environments, even unintentionally, and saw that the burden of proof is always on the potential oppressors to establish their innocence not on their victims.

Many of us pooh-poohed older relatives and Jewish leaders who seemed obsessed with anti-Semitism. They were stuck on yesterday's news - and history's burdens - rather than liberated by the miracle of North America.

Yasser Arafat's war of terrorism and propaganda against the Oslo Peace Process changed the equation - especially when the world applauded him and his tactics.

Soft, spoiled, naive and terrible soothsayers, we never imagined that we would be living in a society where a children's elementary school library would be firebombed, and the crime could trigger debate about its underlying rationale. I appreciate the outpouring of outrage from political leaders, from editorialists and from people on the street .

I honour the Herculean efforts of the Montreal police - and private security guards - to protect my children and neighbours even as I resent the need for special protection.

But how to assess those noble reactions against the slurs directed at Liberal MP Jacques Saada for the sole" crime" of being Jewish? How should one perceive the attempt to" contextualize" this attack on Canadian children and democratic values by condemning Israel?

What does one say about the decision by editors of La Presse to"balance" the expressions of indignation in the Letters to the Editor section with"different sentiment[s]," one dismissing the burning of"a little library" and the second sneering:"If our friends in the Jewish community were ... not so almost unanimously supportive of the hateful and intransigent policies of Israel, we would obviously be more scandalized by these unfortunate acts."

Moreover, how do we understand the intellectual dishonesty festering at Concordia University, where a Swastika scribbled on an Israeli flag is justified by the lie that the hated Nazi symbol functioned as a neutral Hindu emblem? What do we make of the insanity at my home institution whereby an idealistic student in my History of Presidential Campaigning conference was publicly libeled as a racist because - unlike Mary Robinson and the hypocritical, myopic UN human-rights establishment - she dared to raise the moral issue of deploying children as suicide bombers?

Again and again, I note the noxious nexus, the way criticisms of Israel and anti-Zionism camouflage the new anti-Semitism, at Durban and in Montreal, how little hurts grow into big traumas. There is a link, and the firebombers made it, between the violence against Jews in Israel, Istanbul, Montreal and Mombasa, the ugly Jew-baiting rhetoric festering in so many mosques and madrassas, and the genteel but unfair, obsessive and disproportionate expressions of exasperation or indifference toward Jews and the Jewish state in so many seminar rooms and parlours.

When Jews note the obvious connection these days between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, they are accused of being thin-skinned, intolerant, even McCarthyite; yet when anti-Semites justify attacks against Jews by pointing to Israeli actions as the United Talmud Torah vandals did, there are supposedly reputable people around who deem the connection reasonable, contextualized and thus, implicitly justified.

Jews deserve equal treatment not special treatment. If vandals firebombed an Italian church, would La Presse publish letters minimizing the"little fire" or suggesting any community behaviours that justified the crime? Are there any geniuses at Concordia University ready to rationalize cross burnings on African-Americans' lawns given the cross's many positive meanings? Would Mary Robinson have declared her anti-racism conference a success had it degenerated into Muslim-bashing?

Jews should not be burdened with proving that anti-Zionists are merely critics of Israel and not anti-Semites. Given the thousands of incidents targeting Jews in the last few years, harsh critics of Israel and of Zionism must work harder to dissociate themselves from the noxious nexus, from the rivers of ugly rhetoric feeding and blurring together hatred of the Jew, Jewish nationalism and the Jewish state.

And leaders like Mary Robinson - and my McGill colleagues who distribute honourary doctorates - should be extra vigilant to weed out this hatred, rather than standing silently by and watching it grow.

Anti-Semitic acts, be they"minor" or"major," rhetorical or physical, violate the fundamental covenant we all share as citizens of a democracy. Democracy is more than one person, one vote; it begins with values of equality, mutuality and civility, rooted in our common humanity.

"Zero-tolerance" means we all must combat all forms of bigotry, be it in bathroom stalls or on editorial pages, in the halls of the UN or in the context of difficult political strife.

Last week, McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum sent a letter to the McGill community condemning the incidents of vandalism - and linking them to the torching of United Talmud Torah's library.

Note the contrast between the McGill honouree's moral tone-deafness amid the blood libels of Durban and the McGill principal's honourable refusal to ignore bathroom graffiti - understanding the ''broken windows'' theory of policing, that little incidents of incivility fester.

Perhaps, rather than granting an honourary doctorate, Heather Munroe-Blum should sit Mary Robinson down for some lessons on exhibiting moral courage and fostering a true, consistent, aggressive commitment to human rights for all.

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George Marsh Fredrickson - 5/6/2004

While I share Gil Troy's revulsion at antisemitism, as should be clear from my recent short history of racism, I find his attack on Mary Robinson unwarranted and his description of what happened at the UN racism conference very misleading. I attended the conference myself as a participant in the sessions sponsored by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and sat in some of the plenary sessions in which Israel/Palesine was discussed. What happened in brief was as follows. A draft resolution did describe Zionism as a form or racism and implied that the Israel was an illegitimate state. But Mary Robinson strongly and publicly opposed such language and, with the unanimous support of the European delegations, got it removed from the final resolution, which merely called for Israel to withdraw from the occuppied territories. This was not only the longstanding position of the UN but also of the US governemnt at the time. Some of the Arab nations found the fiinal draft so deficient in its condemnation of Israel that they refused to sign it. None of this was reported in the US press to my knowledge, and the myth that Arab or Palestinian extremists "highjacked" the conference began its strange career, as is reflected in Gil Troy's unfair attack on Mary Robinson.