Opinion: We reject John and Jane Doe’s attempt to suppress discussion of Israel-Palestine at UBC

Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) is offended by a new lawsuit filed against the UBC administration and the AMS. based on spurious charges of antisemitism at UBC. Unfortunately, this is merely the latest instance of the weaponizing of antisemitism against those who defend Palestinian human rights or criticize the actions and policies of the State of Israel. This malicious tactic should be rejected out of hand. 

In addition to infringing on legitimate freedom of expression and academic freedom enjoyed by members of the academic community, such legal actions and other, similarly inspired efforts serve to weaken the battle that must be waged against real antisemitism. We believe that their purpose is the suppression of campus activism for Palestinian human rights in response to the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the State of Israel.

The case

The case was filed in the name of John and Jane Doe. John and Jane present three examples of what they deem to be manifestations of antisemitism:

In 2018, two social justice groups at UBC posted a link to an article on Facebook. Jewish groups on campus responded, telling them that the article they shared was antisemitic. The social justice groups immediately investigated and apologized.

In 2021, someone ripped down a student’s mezuzah (a Jewish religious symbol that is mounted on doorways) in a UBC residence. This may also have occurred a second time. It is not clear whether this was an antisemitic incident or an instance of simple mischief.

In 2022, a UBC department sponsored a speaker who was employed as a federal government antiracist consultant. After the speech at UBC he was found to have made tweets which some considered antisemitic. The example chosen by John and Jane to illustrate this antisemitism was the consultant’s reference to Israel as the “Zionist apartheid regime.”

These are their only specific accusations.

John and Jane go on to make general, unsubstantiated statements about difficulties that Jewish students allegedly have encountered when discussing the Middle East in classes, how they have been made to feel uncomfortable on campus, etc. What Jane and John Doe have done is to conflate criticism of Israel, its policies, its government and its military actions, with antisemitism. 

We have every confidence that the courts will understand John and Jane Does’ filing for what it is: a political diatribe masquerading as a lawsuit.

Real antisemitism

The antisemitism that exists in Canada today is largely practiced by white supremacists and far-right fringe groups. It is not tolerated by the rest of society, and certainly not at UBC. Unfortunately, Israel and its defenders have responded to the growing support for the Palestinian cause by mislabeling criticism of Israel and its actions as antisemitism. This strategy culminated in the issuing of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which focuses overwhelmingly on criticisms of Israel. The goal of those who promote the IHRA definition is to have Palestine solidarity activities condemned as manifestations of antisemitism and to subject those who engage in them to legal and other sanctions. John and Jane’s lawsuit is driven by the same purpose. 

In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes in Palestine as part of the creation of the state of Israel. The subsequent oppression of the Palestinians, who had nothing to do with antisemitism, continues today. Yet in a grotesque misuse of the term, Palestinian activists are regularly branded as antisemites when they resist Israeli occupation and apartheid. John and Jane’s lawsuit is part of the effort to weaponize antisemitism against a colonized people and those who support their resistance against oppression and occupation. 

The lawsuit’s true aim: censorship

We believe that the true source of John and Jane Doe’s objections is rooted in their concern that members of the UBC community are increasingly learning about, understanding and appreciating Israel’s settler-colonial history as well as the apartheid system that exists in Israel today. As knowledge of the realities of Palestinian life in Israel and the occupied territories grows, so does support for the Palestinian cause. By launching frivolous claims of discrimination, conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel and demanding investigations and procedures to root out specious instances of antisemitism, John and Jane are seeking to suppress legitimate debate on this topic. 

True antisemitism — the hatred of Jewish people for being Jewish — is abhorrent. Extending this label to members of the UBC community engaged in discussing the history and contemporary reality in Israel and Palestine is as well. People like John and Jane count on using this accusation to suppress legitimate speech and political activity that scrutinizes Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Ultimately, their goal is to intimidate and silence those with whom they disagree.

John and Jane purport to represent all Jewish students who have attended UBC since 1998, including students who are currently enrolled. This is clearly not the case. Like the members of all communities, Jews at UBC hold different views on a range of subjects, including on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By filing a class action in the name of all of the Jewish students who have attended UBC since 1998, John and Jane suggest that all Jews at UBC share their unquestioning support for the state of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestine. But many Jewish students at UBC, including those who are members of Independent Jewish Voices, reject their misapplication of the term antisemitism and support the right of everyone to engage in robust discussion and debate on the subject of Israeli colonialism and apartheid.

John and Jane Doe contend that Jewish students feel threatened, uncomfortable and targeted because of what they label as “hate speech” on campus. No one should be unsafe at UBC. But being made to feel uncomfortable by the expression of ideas you disagree with is not the same as being threatened. Engaging in rigorous, spirited debate within the UBC community about moral and political issues does not constitute abuse. 

Students who have applauded Israel’s actions in Gaza should not be surprised to be called out by others who are appalled by the horrific slaughter of Palestinian civilians that has occurred there over the past six weeks. Those who share and express John and Jane’s views are not being challenged for their Jewishness. They are being called out for their support of violence, military invasion, and the targeting of Palestinian civilians.

While IJV condemns all instances where anyone is made to feel unsafe because they are a member of a particular cultural, ethnic or religious group, it has been our experience that the Palestine Solidarity Movement goes out of its way to condemn all instances of such behaviour, including manifestations of antisemitism. 

Similarly frivolous yet disturbing lawsuits to the one initiated by John and Jane have been initiated against other Canadian universities, including McGill, the University of Toronto and York. We are confident those will have as little success as the one filed against UBC.