Report: Unveiling the Chilly Climate – The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada

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Repression of free speech has an overreaching effect on society (Photo Credit:@wayhomestudio)

Independent Jewish Voices Canada, IJV, has spent the last year gathering research about the repression faced by academics, students and Palestine solidarity activists, collecting approximately 80 testimonies describing the resulting “chilling effect” in Canada. This report is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, utilizing ethnographic methodology and qualitative analysis to describe both the overarching effects of this repression as well as the deeply personal impact it has on activists, artists, students and professors. While focused on Canada, it also holds international ramifications as many of the processes we describe are present in other countries.The full report can be read at https://www.ijvcanada.org/unveilingthechillyclimate/# 

Executive Summary

Focused on the Canadian context, the report seeks to shed light on the wave of suppression of speech regarding Palestine that is sweeping North America and parts of Europe. It documents the impact of reprisals, harassment and intimidation faced by Canadian activists, faculty, students, and organizations in relation to scholarship and activism in solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian human rights.

There is a connection to be made here between these attacks and efforts by pro-Israel advocacy groups to market the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, IHRA, a document that has come under vigorous attack by defenders of academic freedom and Palestinian human rights. While its proponents argue that this definition will not threaten freedom of expression or inhibit criticism of Israeli policies, the findings of this report demonstrate that these basic rights are already under threat and could be further imperiled if the IHRA were to be widely adopted.

The contribution of this report is two-fold: 1) the amount and quality of information gathered here is unprecedented and speaks to the worrisome prevalence of harassment and suppression of speech on Palestine on campuses and in Canadian civil society and 2) it surpasses a simple documentation of instances of repression by employing an ethnographic methodology to analyze the so-called “chilling effect” and its impact on governmental, institutional and individual decision making. 

This research project situates itself firmly within the realm of critical qualitative inquiry which seeks to employ qualitative research for social justice purposes, including making such research available for public education, social policy formulation and the transformation of public discourse. Our inquiry is also shaped by decolonizing methodologies of social science research which seek to challenge institutions, academic and otherwise, which prioritize colonial forms of knowledge production and maintain institutional commitments which impede indigenous self-determination. 

Finally, we follow the directives proposed by queer, feminist and antiracist research methodologies which entreat us to consider how our positions in social hierarchies of race, class, sexuality, and citizenship mediate our experiences. In all, the researchers collected 77 testimonies from 40 faculty members, 23 students, 7 activists and 7 representatives of organizations.  Testimonies were collected from participants in Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Alberta. Among the academics responding were representatives of eleven disciplines from 21 Canadian universities.

Interviewees recounted that their experiences included: political intervention into hiring; attempts to prevent access to event venues and the attempted cancellation of public events on Palestine as well as targeting and doxing, including the inclusion of 128 Canadian academics and activists on the website of Canary Mission, an organization which purports to document “individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the US, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.” Threats of violence and genuine acts of violence were experienced by student activists and these often contained racial and sexual slurs including threats of sexual violence. Students were subject to warnings and disciplinary measures by university administrators whom respondents often described as being hostile to Palestine solidarity activism on campus. 

Faculty respondents reported restrictions on academic freedom, self-censoring of expression on Palestinian human rights, discriminatory treatment by academic publishing platforms, harassment by pro-Israel advocacy groups and media outlets, attacks from colleagues, political interference by university administration, classroom surveillance by pro-Israel student groups, and anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism.  Indeed, the suppression of speech on Palestine has significant consequences in academia where it threatens principles of academic freedom and encourages surveillance of critical intellectuals and activists and of the oppositional knowledge that they produce. 

As our research reveals, the precarious employment conditions of over half of Canada’s university teachers mean that because of the “chilly climate” around speech on Palestine untenured or pre-tenure faculty are reluctant to pursue academic or activist work in this area for fear of endangering contract renewals or future career prospects including access to publishing platforms so central to the academic tenure and promotion process. 

Unsubstantiated allegations of antisemitic intent and support for terrorism are commonly leveled against pro-Palestine academics and activists. Significantly, Palestinians, Muslims and non-Arab racialized participants appear to have borne the brunt of direct attacks on their scholarship and activism. The emotional impact of harassment and suppression was felt most acutely by Palestinian students and faculty interviewed. Jewish activists were not immune to attack and were often characterized by opponents as “kapos” or “self-hating Jews.” 

We also document how both on- and off-campus Israel-advocacy organizations have been at the forefront of efforts to suppress speech and activism on Palestine. As University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick has argued, the pro-Israel organizations have constituted a ‘vigilante’ force which has made it “increasingly difficult to criticize Israel without fear of lawsuits, accusations of anti-Semitism, demands for political balance in staging of events, blacklisting of participants, or other forms of personal or institutional harassment.”

Despite the proliferation in recent years of attacks on Palestine solidarity activism, public recognition of the grievous violations of Palestinian human rights has grown. This report signals that an atmosphere of repression and recrimination related to discourse and activism around Israel/Palestine is ubiquitous and insidious and should be unacceptable in a democratic society.

IJV