Ryan wrong to propose ban

January 08, 2009
Howard Elliott
The Hamilton Spectator

The Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, or at least its salaried leader, wants to ban Israeli academics from speaking at Ontario universities, unless they repudiate Israel's Dec. 29 attack on Islamic University in Gaza, and/or condemn Israeli tactics in Gaza.

Would CUPE president Sid Ryan propose the same ban on Islamic scholars unless they condemn Palestinian militant tactics against Israeli civilian targets, and/or condemn Hamas, which holds as a core belief that Israel must be destroyed?

The answer, we're quite sure, would be no, and ironically, it's the right answer, albeit for the wrong reasons. Ryan would say no because he holds that Israel is the aggressor and oppressor, full stop. He goes as far as to liken some Israeli military tactics to Nazism. That comment, and CUPE's borderline racist proposal would be laughable except they're so dangerous and irresponsible.

The subject of what's currently happening in Gaza, and of Middle East conflict and relations in general, is fraught with emotionalism and charged feelings on all sides, at all levels. People in positions of responsibility have an obligation to speak and act with respect, civility and measured logic on the subject. People such as Ryan and, for that matter, United Steelworkers Local 1005 leader Rolf Gerstenberger, who referred to Israel as committing war crimes, do nothing to help the situation be resorting to simplistic and stereotypical rhetoric. They embarrass themselves, and more importantly, their respective organizations.

Ryan isn't alone in his acutely partisan views. CUPE has 20,000 members in Ontario universities, who in 2006 passed a resolution supporting a boycott of Israeli goods and setting off a firestorm of controversy. That, at least, is a legitimate if not reasonable collective action for a union to take.

This is different, and it goes at least one large step too far. It amounts to a ban on the rights of certain academics to speak simply because they refuse to submit to a subjective and arbitrary dogmatic declaration. And this in a university setting, where academic freedom is supposed to protect the institution from censorship and enforced uniformity.

CUPE is much bigger than its university membership. We wonder what more moderate dues-paying members think of Ryan's partisan advocacy and rhetoric and, for that matter, what the grassroots membership of Local 1005 thinks of Gerstenberger's war crimes comments. One would think elected leaders of organizations would have a responsibility to act and talk in ways that are broadly representative of members, but it's hard to believe that's the case here.

In the case of CUPE, we may find out soon, when this resolution goes before a meeting of Ontario members. If the membership doesn't give the idea a swift and justifiable boot, it will be a sad day.

Language and actions that do nothing but inflame already heated feelings don't help anyone. Here, in Ontario, Canada, we need leadership that preaches mutual respect and civility and that condemns hurtful stereotyping and anything that spreads hatred. We're not getting it from the likes of Ryan.

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