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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Believing women, believing Palestinians

Laurie Adkin on the disturbing tactics being used to silence critics of Israel and curtail free speech on campus and beyond

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman RightsEducationFeminism

Photo by Romain Guy/Flickr

[N]ew justifications are now needed to keep the war/genocide machine going and—as has occurred in many other conflicts—women’s victimization is now being mobilized for that purpose. What is unbelievably cruel is the political use of survivors and victims for the purposes of war. Here’s just one example: [Israeli government spokesperson] Eylon Levy outright arguing today that to support a ceasefire is to ‘demand the survival of the Hamas Rapist Regime.’
—Heidi Matthews, Assistant Professor of Law, York University (X, December 8, 2023)

I spent too much of this morning blocking accounts that have been sending abusive and threatening replies. Whether in Gaza or on twitter said users seem perfectly happy abusing women in the name of protecting women….”
—Maria Aristodemou, Professor of Law, Birkbeck College, London (X, December 7, 2023)


On November 18, the President of the University of Alberta, William Flanagan, decided, in response to a campaign launched by the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, a Zionist organization, to fire the director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre (SACC) at the university. The ostensible reason was that she had, without authorization, “endorsed an open letter.” Flanagan’s statement did not identify the letter. Nor did it specify what element of it was considered “antisemitic”—a link clearly made in the second paragraph of the president’s statement. The official characterization of this letter as antisemitic, and the firing of the director on these purported grounds, put wind in the sails of the Zionist organizations demanding the dismissal of all academics who have publicly criticized the state of Israel.

On the same day, President Flanagan issued a statement dissociating the university from an event being planned by Students for Justice in Palestine, and implying that the event (a vigil for the dead), posed some kind of threat to “the safety of our campus community.”

The president’s actions have greatly contributed to an environment in which faculty and staff who are not protected by tenure feel at risk for speaking about the genocide that has been unfolding in Gaza since October 7. Many Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students feel that their solidarity with Palestinians has been cast as antisemitic. What may be less known to the public is that the president’s actions—combined with their endorsement by Alberta Premier Danielle Smith—opened the floodgate to misogynist, anti-Muslim, racist abuse and threats against women at this university.[1] The SACC was temporarily closed because it became unsafe for staff to work on site.[2] But there has been no acknowledgement by the president of these consequences for faculty and staff, particularly for Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian individuals and for women, or for the individuals whose access to the services of the SACC has been curtailed.

What is the story behind these actions, and what can we learn from it about the tactics being used to silence critics of Israel?

The letter

The letter that unleashed the events described above seems to have been written sometime in October and was addressed to Members of Parliament who had urged an “immediate ceasefire” but had not taken further actions to demand action from the Liberal government. Authorship of the letter remains unclear. The only two “politician” signatories were Susan Kim, a Victoria City Councillor, and Sarah Jama, an NDP MPP in Ontario. The letter was signed by dozens of Canadian human rights and Indigenous organizations along with 48 individuals (including four scholars at UAlberta and the director of the SACC, Samantha Pearson). The signatories overwhelmingly represent organizations working against anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian racism, and included Jewish human rights groups. Jama removed her name from the letter on November 20, after intense backlash to the letter from supporters of Israel. Kim followed suit on November 24.[3] For the sake of convenience, however, I will refer to the letter as the “Jama-Kim letter.”

In a text urging the NDP to push the government harder to call for a ceasefire, the signatories noted that NDP leader Jagmeet Singh had “repeated the unverified accusation that Palestinians were guilty of sexual violence.” This is the phrase that has been weaponized against the letter’s signatories by Zionists and used to position the government of Israel as a defender of women’s rights (and Hamas/Palestinians/Muslim men as depraved women-hating barbarians). The first step in this process was turning the statement that the accusations were unverified into a statement denying the claims of Israeli victims of sexual violence. In the descriptions of the letter that have been given in countless Israeli and Zionist sources since the letter was discovered by these sources, the letter is said to have denied that Israeli or Jewish women were raped. For example, the Jewish Federation of Edmonton (JFE) tweeted, on November 17:

Yet no victim testimonies had been dismissed by the signatories; the only statements about sexual violence that had been made by mid-October had come from sources inside or close to the Israeli government or military. What was in question was not, in fact, victim statements, but claims made by highly untrustworthy sources with a long history of manufacturing anti-Palestinian misinformation.

This deliberate misrepresentation of the letter’s content has since been replicated on social media by supporters of the Israeli government, like Postmedia journalist Robyn Urback. The JFE’s interpretation was published in the Edmonton Journal on November 18. On November 21, Ryan Jespersen interviewed two Alberta feminists on his popular talk-show, Real Talk. Kristin Raworth and Ariella Kimmel are the authors of a blog post published on November 17, entitled “Believing almost all women.” Jespersen billed their viewpoint as calling out the “hypocrisy of so-called feminists for questioning (or denying) claims of sexual violence in Israel on October 7.”

In their powerfully written blog post, Raworth and Kimmel claimed that it was indisputable that Hamas fighters had tortured their victims and brutally raped women. They found it offensive that anyone should seek evidence to validate such claims but offered as a source an article from The Times of Israel, published on November 9. Upon examination, this article explains that no forensic or photographic evidence of rapes had been produced as of that date. However, there was circumstantial evidence, provided by sources close to the government or the military.[4]

Claims in context

Before going further, I need to speak to my aims in contextualizing the Jama-Kim letter and examining the responses to it. First, it is very unlikely that the question of whether or not Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters or other Palestinian men committed rapes on October 7 is going to be proven or disproven by evidence deemed credible to all parties. My aim is not to prove the innocence of Hamas fighters. Men on all sides of all armed conflicts commit atrocities, and that this happened on October 7 cannot be definitively ruled out.

By the same token, it cannot be ruled out that the claims made by official Israeli sources about sexual crimes are either false or exaggerated, because this would be entirely consistent with these sources’ historical record of disinformation and anti-Arab racism. Therefore, the caution urged upon Jagmeet Singh and others by the signatories to the Jama-Kim letter was not unwarranted. It was based upon their knowledge of the disinformation and racist discourse produced by the Israeli state. This is the context for the “unverified” qualifier that has been conveniently omitted from most of the coverage of the Jama-Kim letter.

Questions about the veracity of some of the claims made by the Israeli state ought not to diminish the horror of the violence inflicted on Israeli and foreign nationals on October 7.[5] More than 800 civilians were massacred, and each of those lives was precious.[6] In my view, murdering civilians is not a legitimate form of resistance to the occupation, although I understand why people who have been imprisoned, tortured, brutalized, deprived of the necessities of life, and murdered with impunity by an occupying regime might not feel the same way. Deep hatred has built up on both sides of the apartheid wall.

However, because my focus is upon how the letter has been weaponized by Zionists, and the consequences of this for critics of Israel and for women, in particular, it is necessary to explain why the signatories harboured doubts about the claims coming from Israeli state agencies and media sources. This context is the systemic use of misinformation by the governments of Israel and the United States to dehumanize Palestinians and to justify ethnic cleansing.

The assertions made by Benjamin Netanyahu on October 11 that Hamas fighters had beheaded up to 40 children and had raped women were widely circulated in global media and repeated by President Biden. However, when Netanyahu made this claim, no evidence of these atrocities had been produced by the Israel military. Ten days later, IDF Rear Admiral Hagari made a statement saying that sexual assaults and other atrocities had been committed by Hamas fighters. The former chief rabbi of the IDF, Israel Weiss, told Reuters that “many bodies showed signs of rape.” The Israeli foreign ministry produced a photo of woman who was said to have been the victim of “a mass rape” by Hamas. This photo was deleted by the ministry after it was identified by a journalist as being a photo of a Kurdish female fighter that had been online since June 2022.

Regarding the claim of beheaded babies, Israeli journalists who toured the locale where this was said to have taken place found no such evidence and the Israeli army subsequently refused to confirm this claim. President Biden admitted that he had not seen any photos and that the US had not verified the claim (this didn’t stop Biden from repeating the claim on November 15). In the list of the victims of October 7, updated as of November 26 by Haaretz, 26 of the civilians killed were 16-years-old or younger. Of these, one was an infant under one year of age.

During the subsequent Israeli military assault on Gaza, Israeli government or military sources produced fake videos (like the supposed nurse in Al-Shifa hospital—a video viewed more than 12 million times), and false claims (e.g., the supposed Hamas command centre in the basement of the Al-Shifa hospital). These claims, too, were repeated by President Biden. They were used as a pretext for bombing hospitals in Gaza and their surrounding neighbourhoods and driving out the medical staff. Israeli authorities have denied using white phosphorous weapons, yet this has been documented by Human Rights Watch. Israel has denied responsibility for an airstrike on a civilian convoy evacuating Gaza City on October 13, but Amnesty International has verified that the massacre was the result of an airstrike. And, of course, the Israeli government claims that it is not targeting civilians in Gaza, despite the numerous genocidal statements that have been made by members of that government and the evidence before the eyes of the world since October 7.

The Israeli government has instrumentalized claims of sexual violence against the victims of the October 7 attacks to fuel support within Israel for the genocidal bombardment and siege of Gaza and to justify to the world the disproportionate nature of this violence. Legal scholar Heidi Matthews writes:[7]

Unfortunately, but predictably, two months into the horrific war on Gaza, with over 17,000 mostly women and children dead and with global public support for the war at an all-time low, we are now witnessing the weaponization of evidence of sexual violence to generate public condemnation for Hamas and corroborate the necessity for Israel’s stated war aim of Hamas’ total destruction. To cite one example among many, in a speech on December 5, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pivoted from a discussion of sexual violence allegations to demand that the world continue to support Israel’s use of “overwhelming force” to defend civilisation.


The accusation of “hypocrisy” levelled at the signatories of the Jama-Kim letter (“so-called feminists”) widely misses the mark because it separates the response to the claims from the context and origins of the claims. The statement that the claims of rapes committed by “Palestinian men” were “unverified” at the time of writing was true. Scepticism toward claims coming from official Israeli sources was warranted. This was never about not believing “women,” but about not believing Netanyahu and the other racist extremists in the Israeli government and military.

Consequences

In their haste to condemn the signatories of the Jama-Kim letter as lacking solidarity with Israeli women, some Canadian feminists have ignored the role that claims of rape, savagery, and barbarism play in the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racist discourse of Zionists and white supremacists. They have failed to consider that a community that has been on the receiving end of continual dehumanization for decades cannot be expected to hear claims coming from Israeli authorities in the same way as Canadians who have not had this experience. They did not practice the intersectional analysis that might have led them to seek a dialogue with Palestinian and other women, rather than accuse them of antisemitism. Or, at least, to borrow Heidi Matthews’ expression, they granted no “interpretive charity… in times of crisis.”

By calling for the firing of women who signed the Jama-Kim letter, these feminists have helped open the door to far-right politicians like Danielle Smith, her followers, and Zionist supporters of the Netanyahu government to accuse the signatories of antisemitism.[8]

Following the announcement that SACC Director Samantha Pearson had been fired, Premier Danielle Smith tweeted her “unequivocal” support for “The University of Alberta’s decision to dismiss the director. All spaces including university campuses need to be safe for all. Antisemitism of any kind must not be tolerated.”[9] In this way, the UCP leader put an authoritative stamp on the characterization of the letter as antisemitic—a stamp that garnered no objection from President Flanagan. The JFE and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)—both Zionist organizations—were quick to congratulate Flanagan for his “decisive” action to root out antisemitism at his institution.

The letter writers primed by the JFE, CIJA, and B’nai Brith who are now calling for more heads to roll, are not primarily concerned (if at all) with preventing sexual violence or supporting women who are victims of war crimes. Indeed, the women signatories of the letter are receiving death and rape threats. Perhaps even President Flanagan can see the irony here. The firing of the director of the SACC—accused of having created an environment in which Jewish women might not feel welcomed—has emboldened misogynists and racists to attack all women whose politics or identities they despise.

The usual right-wing haters of “wokeism” and the University of Alberta have seized the opportunity to attack hard-won social justice programs within the university, including the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. But much further afield, the far-right has been quick to equate support for Palestinians with the progressive “ideologies” they attribute to university education. This is evident not only in the comments appended to statements made on X (formerly Twitter) by President Flanagan and Premier Smith, but in Postmedia attacks on faculty and students who have publicly criticized Israel.

The National Post editorial of October 29 provides an excellent example of this campaign. In this far-right manifesto, universities are condemned for “churning out crops of frothing-at-the-mouth activists” who applaud Hamas terrorists while attacking “Israel’s legitimacy.” This outcome is blamed on these institutions’ adoption of “the ideologies of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), identitarianism, decolonization and anti-racism.” This editorial stance explains the hateful depictions of Palestinian solidarity actions produced by National Post cartoonist Malcolm Mayes since October (you can view the cartoons here and here). On November 22, Mayes published a cartoon in the Edmonton Journal depicting participants in the Edmonton marches against the genocide in Gaza as Jew-haters and terrorist supporters. The figures in the cartoon are labelled “universities,” “students,” “profs,” and “academia.”

Photo by R. Siemens/University of Alberta/Flickr

“So-called anti-racism”

As mentioned at the outset of this essay, Flanagan’s statement does not specify the reason for Pearson’s dismissal. It elides straight into a declaration of the university’s stand against “discrimination and hatred on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, and other protected categories,” specifically, “the historical and ongoing harms of antisemitism.” Flanagan appears to judge the letter’s contents (and its signatories) to be antisemitic, but has never explained the grounds for this judgement.

This question is of immediate concern to other signatories of the letter at the UAlberta as well as UAlberta faculty who have made public statements about Israel’s assault on Gaza, and who are also being accused of antisemitism by the JFE and the CIFA, among others, in a campaign to get them dismissed. The firing of Samantha Pearson has had a chilling effect upon non-unionized staff, untenured faculty, and anyone not protected by academic freedom. The decontextualized misrepresentation of this letter as antisemitic, stamped by people in positions of authority, and amplified by media, is being used, simply, to silence opposition to Israel’s genocide of Palestinians.

Selected faculty members have been privately cautioned by senior administrators that their support for Palestinians may make Jewish students feel “unsafe.” Never mind that Jewish students and faculty have been on the front lines of protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Never mind that many Jews are working hard to get non-Jews to understand that Israel does not represent Jews or Judaism.

It has, moreover, not gone unnoticed by faculty, staff and students who come from Muslim or Middle Eastern backgrounds that the president has made no statement regarding the genocide taking place in Gaza. In contrast, the university did not hesitate to declare its unconditional support for Ukraine when that country was invaded by Russian troops, and to offer supports for Ukrainian students. When students at UAlberta organized a candlelight vigil on campus to mourn the lives lost in Palestine—an event labelled “pro-Hamas” by Conservative MP Michael Cooper—the president issued a statement that effectively positioned these students as not belonging to the university “community.” Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students might justifiably be feeling that this university has turned its back on them, even as many are coping with the trauma of losing family and friends in Gaza and the West Bank or who are at risk from Israeli bombing in Syria and Lebanon.

The more than 1,100 members of the university community who have signed an open letter to President Flanagan remind him that anti-Palestinian racism is defined by the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association as: “a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives.” They further observe:

It is painfully ironic that a university ostensibly committed to decolonization would silence critique of Israeli occupation and settler colonialism, for as Indigenous intellectuals, artists, and activists have noted in their statement of Indigenous Solidarity with Palestine, “The atrocities of the Israeli apartheid regime are… consistent with settler-colonial projects globally.”


Is the administration unaware that Jews have diverse stances on Israel, Palestine, and the current conflict, despite the feedback it is getting from faculty, students, and staff? Is it unaware that Indigenous scholars understand Israel’s occupation of Palestine as a form of settler colonialism? Or is it feeling the heat from Zionist organizations like the CIJA, JFE, and B’nai Brith?

University presidents are under intense pressure from the government of Israel to make statements equating support for Palestinians with antisemitism. The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed in a November 10 article that the president of Israel has sent a letter to American university presidents calling on them to set up task forces to “combat antisemitism.” As the article outlines, there is a long history of lobbying of university leaders, by Israeli officials at the consular and other levels, demanding everything from the cancellation of courses to the firing of faculty deemed to be “antisemitic.”

And there is often an implicit “or else” behind such demands. Is it significant, for example, that in 2020 the University of Alberta accepted an endowment from the Jewish Federation of Edmonton for the creation of a professorship in Jewish studies? Is that endowment at risk if the university makes any statement that could be construed as being critical of Israel?

While creating a very chilly climate for actions supporting Palestinians, the UAlberta administration has been noticeably slow to act on the presence of real antisemitism within the institution. After the debacle of the Canadian Parliament saluting Yaroslav Hunka, a veteran of the Waffen-SS Galician Division that carried out war crimes, attention was drawn to an endowment fund in Hunka’s name held by the University of Alberta—specifically, by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS), which is housed in the Faculty of Arts. It then came to light not only that the CIUS held dozens of such endowments (from families of Ukrainian ultranationalists), adding up to at least $1.4 million, but that scholars at the university had brought this to the attention of deans and provosts more than ten years earlier. Yet nothing had been done before the Hunka scandal led the university to return this fund to the family and issue a statement saying that staff would investigate the other funds.

We thus see a glaring difference in the way the university’s administrators have responded to these two “reputational” crises. In the case of the letter calling for a ceasefire, in the midst of a genocide, the president took immediate action to fire the director of the SACC (simply because she had signed the letter) and to issue a statement dissociating the institution from the views expressed in the letter. In the case of the (re)revelation of the existence of the Waffen-SS-associated endowment funds, the president has remained silent, and no action has been taken against the CIUS director. Two months past the Hunka scandal, the director of the CIUS has not even been required to explain to the university community how the institute came to accept these funds. The president has made no statement declaring that the legitimation of war crimes in the form of these funds creates a hostile environment for Jewish and Polish faculty, staff, and students.

What these two episodes tell us is that the administration has, in fact, very weak commitments to fighting racism, whether it be anti-Palestinian racism or anti-Jewish racism. The responses have been inconsistent, and have created an environment in which many faculty, students, and staff feel less safe and supported than before.

Why is it so difficult for the UAlberta leadership to craft a statement expressing sympathy with all students, staff, and faculty who have lost family and friends since October 7—whether Israeli or Palestinian? To acknowledge that there are diverse Jewish views about Israel, Palestine, and the events that are unfolding now? That both Jewish and Muslim students, as well as faculty and staff, feel particularly vulnerable right now and deserve our support and protection? To support a ceasefire to bring an end to the horrific genocide taking place in Palestine? To vigorously protest the representation of our community as being Jew-haters and terrorist supporters because we are demonstrating our compassion for Palestinians and demanding an end to the violence? And further, to call out the misogynist and racist abuse and threats being directed at women linked to the Jama-Kim letter or to Palestinian solidarity more generally?

These questions resonate far beyond our campus. Our experience here is a microcosm of the environment that has been created by Zionist campaigns, backed by Postmedia and uncontested by other media, and fostered by the Canadian government itself. It is one that manifests anti-Palestinian racism, weaponization of accusations of antisemitism, unwillingness to address the root causes of real antisemitism, and failure on the part of so-called political leaders to grasp what is at stake as the world witnesses the annihilation of Gaza.

Laurie E. Adkin is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.


References

1. An article by a journalist close to Premier Smith said on November 20 that: “Premier Danielle Smith’s office was engaged in the university’s decision.” If this is true, it means that there was direct political interference in the university’s autonomy to hire and fire academic staff—and that this interference was accepted by the president of the university.

2. According to the Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA), staff at the UASAC have “been subjected to the stress of the online dissemination of their contact information, vulgar and dehumanizing comments, and entirely false online reports of dismissal from their positions” (undated statement, accessed December 10, 2023).

3. Jama’s staff asserted that she “stands against all forms of violence and sexual assault.” A petition demanding that Kim be forbidden to wear a keffiyeh in council chambers and that she be removed from her board appointments has gathered about 6,100 signatures.

4. The status of these claims had changed little by early December. See Kareena Pannu, “Despite lack of evidence, allegations of Hamas ‘mass rape’ are fueling Israeli genocide in Gaza,” Mondoweiss, December 8, 2023.

5. There are questions surrounding what Hamas commandos planned to do that day, and who is responsible for all of the civilian and combatant deaths. Some of the victims were killed when Israeli forces shelled houses on the Kibbutz Be’eri to kill Hamas fighters who were inside with Israelis that they had tried to take hostage. According to an Israeli witness, the Special Forces “started shooting everyone,” including captives. Investigative journalist Max Blumenthal, after reviewing the photographic evidence, thinks it likely that cars carrying hostages were blown up by Israeli missiles fired from helicopters and that burned bodies said to have been Hamas victims are more likely the victims of Israeli tank shelling and helicopter missiles fired at houses on the kibbutzim. Blumenthal further believes that the aim of the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad commandos was to capture hostages who could be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. Their first target was the Israeli military base at Erez Crossing, which was “maintaining the siege of Gaza.”

6. The numbers released by the IDF were that 779 civilians, 13 emergency services workers, and 427 soldiers and police were killed on October 7. See Linda Dayan and Maya Lecker, “How Haaretz is counting Israel’s dead from the October 7 Hamas attack,” Haaretz, November 23, 2023.

7. Heidi Matthews, letter to colleagues at Osgoode Law School, December 7, 2023, in response to accusations that a tweet she posted on December 5 was “antisemitic.” The text of the letter was imbedded in an X (formerly Twitter) post of December 7.

8. Members of a December 7 panel of high-profile Canadian feminists noted that there has been no substantial presence in the “Stop the Genocide” protests of Canadian women’s organizations, despite the origins of the second wave Canadian women’s movement in 20th century anti-war mobilizations. Sunera Thobani argued that “Western” feminists are mainly concerned with women in the Global South only when they oppressed by their own men, and tend to turn a blind eye to the ways in which women’s lives are impacted by Western imperialism. This is a dimension of the responses to the Jama-Kim letter worth pursuing, but for which there is insufficient space here.

9. Premier Smith seems to be unaware of the policy her party pushed on Alberta universities in 2019 in the form of the ‘Chicago Principles.’ See Dax D’Orazio, “Will Ontario and Alberta’s ‘Chicago Principles’ on university free expression stand?” Queen’s Gazette, November 10, 2023.

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