Don’t Talk On The Grass
RDBID’s censorship derails Profs In The Park
by Gregory Beatty
On May 19, U.S. President Obama called for a Middle East peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians based on borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Close to 300,000 Palestinians were displaced then, with Israel seizing territory from several Arab states including the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula.
Some of that land has since been returned to Arab hands, but large chunks have effectively been colonized by Israelis. Until the territorial dispute is settled, a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unlikely.
In Europe, Obama's pronouncement won applause. But in the U.S., which has traditionally been a staunch supporter of Israel, it caused a firestorm of controversy. A week later at a G8 summit in France, Canadian PM Stephen Harper waded into the fray, declaring his government's unequivocal support for Israel.
Even in Regina, the Israeli-Palestinian question can inflame passions. University of Regina Geography professor Emily Eaton found that out when her proposal for a public talk was rejected by the sponsoring organization: Regina Downtown Business Improvement District.
Modeled on the successful Coffeehouse Controversies series, which for several years has seen Faculty of Arts professors deliver short talks on topics of interest to them, Profs in the Park was coordinated by RDBID's Neal McDonald. It was supposed to be held every Tuesday at noon in Victoria Park as a way of promoting the downtown.
When RDBID cancelled Eaton's talk (on the international movement to apply financial pressure on Israel to reach an accord with displaced Palestinians), other professors withdrew from the series to protest what they saw as an unjust infringement on academic freedom.
McDonald subsequently resigned from RDBID.
Along with the other professors, Eaton originally agreed to participate in Profs in the Park in April. "RDBID would've had the list of topics for quite a while," she says. "It was when we started to more aggressively publicize the talks through social media that things erupted."
By press time on June 14, RDBID had failed to respond to an interview request. But in news reports, City Councilor Michael Fougere, who sits on RDBID's board, was identified as the person who'd conveyed concerns about Eaton's talk to RDBID.
At a June 13 Council meeting, Fougere confirmed he had received several complaints from unidentified Reginans.
"As any councilor would do when that happens, [I talked] to the parties involved," he says. "In this case, it was Regina Downtown. Regina Downtown then talked to the university, and what we see now is the university not wanting to continue with the partnership."
Eaton's talk, which was formally titled Solidarity With Palestine: The Case for Boycotts, Divestment & Sanctions Against Israel, was hardly the only one with the potential to cause controversy. Other profs had planned to talk about homelessness, policing, environmental activism and corporate agriculture. Yet hers was the only one RDBID flagged.
"There's all these broad liberal principles that apply to every issue, it seems, except [solidarity with Palestinians]," says Eaton. "It seems taboo to even suggest that there's an occupation going on, and that there are violations of human rights and all sorts of UN resolutions that show the Israelis are engaged in illegal operations."
In the late '80s, then-P.M. Brian Mulroney was a champion of a global movement to put financial pressure on South Africa to end apartheid. The campaign Eaton intended to discuss, she says, "involves people from all over the world."
"I'm not advocating any particular solution, or that people have the right to use violence," Eaton says. "The goal is simply to put pressure on Israel to do things it's obligated to do under international law."
"We are deeply disappointed that the business association took the position it did," says James Turk, head of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. "We view the role of the university in democratic society as a place where ideas, whether popular or not, can be discussed, criticized and evaluated.
"Unfortunately, there are lots of special interest groups who don't want certain issues looked at because they may challenge their fundamental beliefs, or raise embarrassing questions, or be counter to their financial or political interests.
"What this case shows is the importance of academic freedom," Turk adds. "The world is in considerable difficulty now because of what's happening in the Middle East. At a time when we need the most thorough discussion from all different perspectives, to have somebody cancel a talk because they didn't like what someone else was going to say serves no one's interests."
On June 14, Eaton delivered her talk at Neutral Ground on Scarth St.'s pedestrian mall. The gallery is the new home for the series, now titled Profs in the City.
"It didn't surprise me that someone complained," Eaton says. "There are people out there who equate any talk about Israel with something that's off-limits. It did surprise me, though, that [based on a handful of complaints] the talk would be shut down."