Antisemitic Mural At York University: Protest or Acquiesce?
The Jewish Defence League (JDL) of Toronto is planning a protest against the antisemitic mural at York University. And a week ago, I was asked by a group fighting defamation of Israel on North American campuses to go to the site of the mural and call the police to report it as hate “speech”. I am glad I went to York with the goal of learning more about the issue before shooting off my mouth to the cops.
I must admit that when I got to York, I had a fairly militant attitude – I had been influenced by the “how-could-they” crowd who have accused Hillel leaders of being cowards. For example, Pamela Geller wrote a scathing article on Hillel’s decision not to make a big thing of it (UPDATE: for some reason she took this article down from her site, The Geller Report) :
Hillel proves yet again what an utterly worthless organization it has become in the face of growing hostility and flagrant antisemitism on college campuses. These Jewish groups say nothing in the face of annihilationists and calls for genocide, but freely criticize me for standing against it.
I have great respect for Geller and tended to accept her version without question. I went to York to look for the horrid mural and to challenge Hillel people for their acquiescence. I had seen the mural online and I fully expected to be overwhelmed by the image when faced with it “in person”. It made me laugh, therefore, when, hard as I looked, I found Hillel’s office and nary a sign of the offensive mural. That softened my approach, thank goodness, and I was ready to interview rather than challenge the Jewish student leaders I met there.
I learned that the mural in question won second place in an art competition run by the Student Union in 2013 and was 1 of 9 selected. It is important to understand that the Student Union operates independently of York University administration. If the Union does not break any laws, then the administration has no means or reason to interfere in its activities. This leaves two ways to approach the mural issue: If it is an example of hate speech, then the police can be involved. And if it does not fall under the legal category of hate speech what, then, is the best manner by which to deal with the offensive image?
The Question of Hate Speech
The Criminal Code of Canada says a hate crime is committed to intimidate, harm or terrify not only a person, but an entire group of people to which the victim belongs. It applies when the victims are targeted for who they are, not because of anything they have done, and can involve intimidation, harassment, physical force or threat of physical force against a person, a group or a property.
In Canada it’s also a crime to incite hatred. Under Section 318 of the Criminal Code, it is a criminal act to “advocate or promote genocide” — to call for, support, encourage or argue for the killing of members of a group based on colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
Therefore, in order for the mural to be considered an example of hate speech it would need to be deemed intending to intimidate, harm or terrify an entire group of people – Jews or Israelis in this case – and that the “accused intentionally acted out of hatred” (link temporarily not working because website offline for updating). Furthermore, the legal requirement is that a reasonable person would find the material intending to incite harm to the group in question.
The informal survey I describe below shows that this requirement regarding the “reasonable person” is not likely to be upheld and, therefore, police would potentially feel more irritated than anything else by being called out to campus. I also think it would be hard to prove that hatred motivated either the artist or the competition selection committee.
There are two problems with defining this legally as antisemitic hate speech:
- Other than being able to clearly identify the main character as Palestinian (the kfiyah and the flag fringe on his scarf), nobody but the informed observer would recognize the symbols of terrorism against Israel contained within this mural.
- Because the other symbols of terrorism are not recognized by the great majority of Canadians (and perhaps even Jews and some Israelis), it could perhaps be argued that protesting this mural constitutes discrimination against Palestinians.
How to Best Handle the Antisemitic Mural Question
Here is what Geller wrote regarding Hillel’s approach to the antisemitic mural:
They have instituted a new approach which discourages the point-counterpoint approach, but rather promotes a more positive educational goal.
This is cowardice. Fighting is ineffective?
Actually, Ms Geller, I have come to the conclusion that Hillel is right. Before leaving campus, I stood at the bottom of the stairs where the painting hangs and randomly stopped ten students walking by. I asked them if they have a moment to answer some quick questions for an article I am writing. All agreed.
First question: How often do you walk in this particular place? Most said “every day”, one said twice a week and one said 3 times a week. Second question: Have you noticed that painting up there in the left-hand corner? Ten out of ten said “No. This is the first time I am seeing it.” Third question: What do you think the painting is trying to portray; what message is it trying to give? Here are their answers, showing how many gave the same answer:
- I see a person with his hands behind his back and a building is on fire – 5
- A man is looking at an industrial building – 2
- It reminds me of a book where a boy always had a stone in his hand and he finally decides to throw it and almost hits a girl – he needs to cope with almost having hurt her seriously – 1
- He is thinking about throwing stones, I don’t know why – 1
- The Palestinian is looking at his contemporary situation and dreaming of a better future – 1
I could have asked this last man more questions to see if he saw the destruction of Israel as part of the better future the man was dreaming of, but I merely asked where he is from. He is Iranian. So, for me, the point was that only those who are already sensitive to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may understand this mural – if they even see it!
Given that these were all university students and I would expect students to be curious, it was perhaps surprising that only one female student asked me what I was writing about and inquired about the actual meaning of the painting. When I explained the symbolism to her, she spontaneously said: “Then this painting has no place here at all.”
This little survey, and particularly the woman’s response upon learning the meaning of the painting, seems to prove that the Jewish campus leadership are on the right path concerning how to combat campus antisemitism and how to fight anti-Israel lies: by applying a long term strategy of education and cooperation with other groups on campus. This is, in fact, what Hillel and another group that partners with them on many projects – Hasbara at York – are doing with growing success.
Such an approach is certainly less sexy to journalists and activists than mass rallies and making a lot of noise. However, mass rallies and making a lot of noise only had the effect of getting an anti-Israel group temporarily shut down by York University administration – and not because of a problem with their ideology, but only with the noise. You must confront ideology with education – and isn’t that what university is all about?
So What Is To Be Done About the Antisemitic Mural?
I looked online for information on the competition and the “artist” and his own description of his work. The mural, if you can call it that – it is no more just a large painting, and not a huge one at that – has been up for two years. And herein appears the means for requesting its removal without prejudice or insult to anyone.
In the application instructions (no longer online, screenshot below) is a line claiming that the winning pieces will remain up for two years. It says nothing about extending the time, but merely that after this time the art will be returned to the artists who produced them.
Therefore, I suggest approaching the Student Union and requesting that they honour the terms of their own “contract”!
Seeing the Antisemitic Mural in Context
There are two contexts that are important here: firstly, the painting appears high above one entrance to the student center and from some angles is partially hidden behind a large light fixture. It is mostly noticeable to those descending the spiral steps – I certainly missed it when I climbed those very steps. And it is part of a larger display of student art. While this is incidental to whether or not the mural is antisemitic, it may speak to its potential impact to some degree.
Secondly, there is the artist’s explanation of his work as he supplied in his proposal to the competition selection committee:
I find this description interesting – while I don’t think he should have been awarded second prize for art, I do think his piece with its title and blurb could provide a wonderful trigger for debate and discussion. Al Abid (who is currently working in customer services for BMO), talks about the indecision and inner conflicts of the stone-holding man. I can even argue that the map of Israel on his kfiyah is part of his inner conflict and not necessarily representing his unwavering goal – is his purpose to wipe out all of Israel or is it to defend against the settlements in Judea & Samaria? Does he, in fact, support a two-state solution? I am not naïve, and I know what the Palestinian Covenant says, but does that mean that this particular conflicted individual agrees with that? He sees the roots of the ancient olive trees as intertwined with the roots of the Palestinians. Regardless of one’s political views, I think one can discuss this metaphor and gain from the discussion. I find inner conflict and confusion more conducive to interpersonal discussion of contentious topics than most of what I encounter among many individuals with whom I have interacted concerning this issue.
Had discourse on the questions above taken place at the time the mural went up – either on the pages of the student newspaper or in a panel discussion event – we may have seen a number of students, such as the woman in my survey, saying that the mural has no place on campus. How different that would have been than using protest methods to insist it be removed!
Using the Antisemitic Mural as a Talking Point
There are no clearly Jewish symbols on this painting – had there been a Star of David on the building or a menorah in one of the windows, that would have been a different story. But there are not. And, in fact, if you look closely, you will see that the smoke is coming out of the bulldozer and not the building. So much for understanding the symbol of the destruction of Jewish homes. Therefore, I wonder whether or not one can assume that this is unquestionably an example of antisemitism.
Naomi Friedman (founder of Stop BDS on Campus), does not agree with me and she asks provocative questions. I add these here for your consideration with my caveats in red text:
- If the stone thrower was considering throwing stones at any other “identifiable group” (in the language of the Canadian Criminal Code), would the idea of contemplating violence win a prize and be on display in at a public institution? In this case, there is only an implication of Israelis as an identifiable group; at the same time, the question is an excellent one. We also need to be careful because the only clearly identifiable group is the “Palestinian” and we need to consider whether or not protest against this mural can lead to claims of anti-Palestinian hate/discrimination, however absurd that may appear to us.
- Does the display of an antisemitic mural at York University have implications for the wider community? If it is okay to hang the mural at York and nothing is made of it; if so, then does that not set a precedent for the rest of the community – and/or nation? I am not convinced that we can necessarily successfully classify this particular painting as antisemitic in a way that would be convincing to the general community. The question is still a good one whether it is hypothetically or actually hate speech.
- How does the failure of Jewish groups to confront, or to successfully confront, rising antisemitic narratives that are taught and/or used to indoctrinate university students impact our community today and in the future?
- How do events/situations at universities impact our greater communities?
The painting’s ambivalence and subtlety are perhaps evidence of the increasing ingenuity of our enemies in creeping up behind us and stabbing us in the back psychologically, outside of Israel, as they are now doing physically within Israel. Not once did either Naomi or I put the other down or belittle each others’ intelligence while disagreeing with the various facets of whether or not this can be considered legal hate speech. This is exactly the kind of discussion that needs to be carried out on Facebook and other social media and in the halls of academia.
To provide you with the understanding you need to conduct meaningful discussion of this painting, you can refer to Naomi’s guest post that explains the terrorist symbolism you can find in it.
A Final Word
A member of JDL with whom I spoke told me the painting is a justification for terror and a license to kill Jews/Israelis; he was adamant that it was put up by a SAIA-controlled student council (where SAIA is Students Against Israeli Apartheid). While the latter point may be true (I don’t know), I think it is a long stretch to claim that the mural can be irrefutably seen to justify terror or to license murder. Dean of Osgoode Law School, Lorne Sossin, also contests this interpretation and any basis for application of hate laws to this painting. Therefore, one can question the wisdom of making a loud protest that may backfire.
Before engaging in hasty criticism of the student organizations designing what they consider wise strategy for confronting antisemitism on campus, and before conducting attention-getting interventions without coordination with these organizations, I suggest talking together about the sensitive topics that affect us all. I also suggest that we do the research and find out all we can about the issues that require response. And finally, that we choose our battles wisely so that we do not inadvertently shoot ourselves in the foot.