York U mural controversy: a sign of things to come

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York University has been a centre of sometimes rowdy debate among students over Israel/Palestine for more than a decade. But now Paul Bronfman, a wealthy Jewish donor has threatened the university over a mural he claims is anti-Semitic. The move has provoked even more fierce debate. Read more.

A mural in the student centre at York University has suddenly gained national prominence.

Paul Bronfman ‘outraged’ over pro-Palestinian mural at York University, read an article in the Globe and Mail

Toronto film executive pulls support for York University film program over Israel mural, read another in the Toronto Star.

york u muralThe offending mural shows a Palestinian man facing off against an Israeli bulldozer. He has some rocks in his hand, an obvious reference to Palestinians resisting further encroachment by Israel on Palestinian land.

Bronfman’s declarations have provoked a fierce debate on campus over freedom of speech and what constitutes anti-Semitism.

Avi Benlolo, President of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust studies, was fierce in his attack on York University’s administration, comparing the mural to white supremacist propaganda. “This poster is more than a mere piece of art — it is propaganda, and a clear call to murder, “ he wrote.

The university’s position (at least so far) is that the mural, although it does represent a strong criticism of Israel, is not anti-Semitic. It has the support of many leading faculty members. As one Jewish faculty member said to me, “it’s not as if the Palestinian was throwing a stone at a little Jewish boy wearing a kippah”.

Some senior members of the University administration have also gone public. “As a proud member of York’s University community and the Jewish community (…) I passionately disagree with (Benlolo’s) position”, wrote Lorne Sossin, Dean of the Osgoode Hall Faculty of Law. “Benlolo says he believes in “free speech, but (…) arrogates to himself the right to determine what constitutes hate and intolerance for the rest of us.

Whether the university stands firm, or decides to back off, the intervention of wealthy Jewish donors raises the curtain on the extent to which Canadian universities are vulnerable to political pressures from outside donors.

The flap at York University is a sign of things to come. Discussion and debate over Israel/Palestine is heating up all across North America. It seems unlikely that either the Simon Wiesenthal Centre or wealthy donors will be able to stop it.


  1. Bronfman objected to the map shown on the scarf because it shows an area that includes Israel, the West Bank and Gaza without dividing lines. The fact that this is historically accurate, i.e. the Palestine mentioned in the Balfour declaration, seems not to matter to him.

    Avi Benolo’s suggestion that propaganda is “more than a mere piece of art” shows that he understands neither propaganda nor art.

    Some of the best art promotes a particular point of view and often improves our understanding of a situation. By its use of the map, the mural reminds us of an important fact about the past. Contrasting the bulldozer with a small rock, the artist clearly portrays the present power imbalance in Palestine. Showing that bulldozer about to crush a nearly defenceless human being, makes us aware of the dangers we all face. This is a very powerful piece of art. Bronfman and Benolo rightly fear the truth that it conveys.

    As a Jew who values his right to speak his mind, I would feel less safe on the York campus, if it were to remove that mural.

  2. It is interesting that “Bronfman objected to the map shown on the scarf because it shows an area that includes Israel, the West Bank and Gaza without dividing lines.” The maps we saw in Israel did not show dividing lines for the West Bank and Gaza; everything was shown as part of Israel. The Occupied West Bank was shown as “Judea & Samaria” – part of Israel.

    1. both of you make good points. Here is a copy of a letter I sent to Carol Ott, CBC interviewer on As it Happens. I don’t think it was read out.

      Ms. Off,
      During your interview with the York University student centre president, you repeatedly asked about the significance of the fact that the map of Palestine in the offending mural appears to show all of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River (i.e. including the current state of Israel). You felt that this was problematic. I think you felt it was “incitefull”.

      But the Avis map that I got when I rented a car in Tel Aviv shows ALL of the same land (i.e. including the occupied territories) as Israel. This is also true of all of the Israeli maps I have ever seen including school atlases, weather maps, and tourist maps. In fact, though it declared itself a state in 1948, Israel has never defined its borders, allowing for the possibility of eventual expansion. For any Palestinian to claim all of that territory as “Palestine” is surely no more hateful or inciteful than any Israeli claiming it all as “Israel”.

      Argument over borders is a legitimate and ongoing part of the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians.
      Peter Larson

  3. Palestinian had enough of this B.S. The day will come to ends these propaganda. Jews in the west has no business interfering with the Palestinian. As anti-Semite is a big lie Palestinian are Semite. These people in the west knows nothing ignorant of other nation. Mr. Hoffman his donation is reducing his tax return.

    1. Ms. Gideon, in my opinion, every Canadian, irrespective of their religion, has a right to participate in a discussion or debate over Canada’s policy toward Israel/Palestine. I welcome discussion with Canadian Jews in particular.

  4. If they continue to pull on the “anti-Semitic” elastic trick, as mentioned by Shulamit Aloni on Democracy Now in 2002 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LZNXNVL1G8&list=PLu_iOw3fhYRgXRxbAJ_SP4F0ZZXwUF3iC&index=97 ) , they will cheapen the concept so much that it will permit TRUE Anti-Semitism to go unnoticed because people will start to think anti-Semitism is an INVENTION of over-sensitive zionists …

    In fact by crassly conflating anti-zionism with anti-Semitism, zionist are using Jews as HUMAN SHIELDS to hide their crimes past & present …

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