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Canadian Conference on Mideast Peace Is at Center of Academic Storm

12 June 2009 3:15 pm
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A Canadian research funding body has agreed to think about its decision to support a conference later this month on prospects for peace in the Middle East after the Canadian science minister complained that some of the participants may be biased against Israel. The minister, Gary Goodyear, is already in hot water with academics after evoking his religious beliefs in connection with his views about evolution, and yesterday the Canadian Association of University Teachers called for his resignation.

In January, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) gave $17,815 to York University in Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston to host a conference 22–25 June entitled "Israel/Palestine: Mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace." On 5 June, Goodyear asked the council to conduct a “second peer review” of the grant on the grounds that “several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.” In March, the minister infamously ducked an inquiry about his belief in evolution by saying: “I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.”

Yesterday the funding council took a small step toward mollifying one of its political masters by announcing that it is “looking into the matter in the context of its policies and procedures.” But SSHRC spokesperson Trevor Lynn noted that, "to my knowledge,” the council has never conducted a second peer review of an approved grant. SSHRC program guidelines state that minor changes to a conference, such as the addition of a topic or replacement of speakers, do not require the agency's approval, whereas organizers are expected to tell the council of any major alterations in the use of the grant, such as “changing the theme or focus of the event.”

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says he's fed up with the behavior of both the council and the minister. “Neither of them gets it,” says Turk. The association says Goodyear should resign because of his unprecedented political interference into a granting council decision.

Conference co-organizer Sharryn Aiken, a law professor at Queen’s, is disappointed that the Jewish community would accuse organizers of promoting “a one-state solution for Israel and Palestine, which will result in obliteration of the Jewish homeland. We’re all academics, with you know, recognized credentials. None of us are ideologues and, speaking for myself, I don’t have any history of activism with the sort of anti-Zionist groups out there.”

Aiken, who is Jewish, said she was "deeply offended by these charges because they go to the core of what I care about. … It’s just over the top.”

The conference, which featured an open call for papers, attracted 120 abstracts. Of the 55 speakers chosen, only two Toronto-based academics have opted not to participate because of the commotion. None of the Israeli speakers have withdrawn.

York University President Mamdouh Shoukri issued a statement in support of the conference. He said that upholding academic freedom, like democracy, “is untidy, ungainly and often inconvenient. But it remains our best defense against the intellectual paralysis that is the hallmark of totalitarian societies.”

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