Gil Troy: My School Should Have Shown the Courage to Let Ehud Barak Speak

Roundup: Historians' Take

Gil Troy, in the National Post (Oct. 7, 2004):

[Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. This article is based on a speech professor Troy delivered at a rally in Montreal on Oct. 5.]

Today, I feel very alone, very concerned, and very sad. Concordia University has barred former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak from speaking on campus, citing a "security risk assessment" that deems hosting him too dangerous, and far too many of us have greeted it with a shrug.

Every time we are forced to rely on police to escort a guest to campus -- let alone bar him or her from speaking -- we fail as academics. We should be able to provide our own security, if necessary, mobilizing in a multicoloured procession of academic gowns rather than having to cower behind a thin blue line of noble, brave police officers.

There are three essential facts to this case:

- Jason Portnoy, a full-time, tuition-paying student at Concordia University, wanted to stretch his education by inviting Barak to speak. In so doing, he was exercising a basic right enjoyed by dozens of students on this campus every year -- and by thousands of students on campuses throughout the world. Portnoy's complaint is a legitimate one: Why is he being discriminated against?

- The "security risk assessment" -- and the subsequent decision to ban Barak from the Concordia campus -- punishes the potential victims and not the potential perpetrators of the crime. It is unfathomable to me that the mere threat of violence can silence speakers -- especially one known internationally as a peacemaker -- and it is unconscionable for a university to create this kind of a precedent.

- Offering an off-campus site, as the university has done, is the problem, not the solution. It implicitly admits that something is broken at Concordia. If its administrators cannot control their own campus, then just who is in charge?

Where are my colleagues -- not just from Concordia, but from McGill, Universite de Montreal, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and everywhere else across the country -- to defend academic values of free and vigorous debate and to point out that appeasement is not peace? As educators, are we comfortable with a campus which only gives a one-sided perspective on any topic -- from the Middle East to the Middle West?

Where is Montreal's Mayor, quiet as we're told in his city that it is too risky to learn from the former leader of a sister democracy? And where is the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, or the Prime Minister, Paul Martin? Do they sleep well at night knowing that fundamental Canadian values of decency, civility and dialogue are being threatened under their watch? Do they understand that there is no peace, no order, and no good government when we can't even sit and reason together on a university campus?

This is about more than just a single address. In too many places around the world, Israelis are demonized, marginalized, banned by the forces of unreason who libel even Ehud Barak despite his peacemaking efforts. I would love to see pro-Palestinian professors and students at Concordia and elsewhere standing up and saying: "I disagree with Ehud Barak but I will defend his right to speak" -- just as I say I disagree with Norman Finkelstein and literally dozens of other Israel-, America- and Canada-bashers who have spoken at Concordia in these last two years. I don't just defend their rights to speak, I welcome the opportunity to learn from them, to shake up my views.

When rights of free speech and peaceable assembly become optional rather than mandatory -- when they become contingent on liking those who wish to speak freely or assemble peaceably -- we're sliding down that slippery slope to intellectual totalitarianism.

On campuses throughout North America, people are struggling with the boundaries of speech. There is all too often a toxic environment that festers, that politicizes everything, that polarizes everyone, that divides colleagues, silences dissenters and conquers our spirit.

Too many people, in the name of diversity, ironically, think that a university's mission is to promote only one alternative, quite marginal school of thought -- and woe to any free thinkers who deviate from the line of the day, the methodological trend of the moment, the political perspective of the narrow-minded thought police who might be temporarily ascendant.

But the university's true mission is to unite us in civility to learn from a diversity of opinions. Let us reason together, let us stand together, let us fight this assault on the values we hold dear. If we don't take that stand right now, it will only get worse and worse.

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