JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ
JEWISH ACADEMIC/ UNIVERSITY NEWS
Brendan Kennedy/Toronto Star
A half-listening student, a hypersensitive campus and the speed at which gossip travels on the Internet conspired to create a very damaging game of broken telephone for one York University professor this week.
Cameron Johnston, who has been teaching at York for more than 30 years, has been forced to respond to allegations that he made anti-Semitic remarks in a lecture on Monday afternoon after a student misunderstood his comments and began sending emails to Jewish groups and the media.
Johnston was giving his introductory lecture to Social Sciences 1140: “Self, Culture and Society,” when he explained to the nearly 500 students that the course was going to focus on texts, not opinions, and despite what they may have heard elsewhere, everyone is not entitled to their opinion.
“All Jews should be sterilized” would be an example of an unacceptable and dangerous opinion, Johnston told the students.
He didn’t notice Sarah Grunfeld storm out. Grunfeld, a 22-year-old in her final year at York, understood Johnston’s example to be his personal opinion.
She contacted Oriyah Barzilay, the president of Hasbara at York — an Israel advocacy group on campus — who then sent a press release to media and other Jewish community groups calling for Johnston to be fired.
Blogs and Facebook groups picked it up, and in a few hours the allegations spread within the city’s Jewish community, albeit mostly online.
Sensitivities around anti-Semitism are particularly heightened at York, which has a large Jewish population and a history of toxic relations between supporters and critics of Israel on campus.
“I’m terribly upset,” Johnston said Tuesday. “I’m very proud of the fact that in the history of my teaching career I’ve stood for the best values of what constitutes a meaningful human community.”
Johnston, who is Jewish, said his religion likely influenced his choice of words, why he used “this example of a completely reprehensible opinion” with historical precedent.
During the Second World War, Nazi scientists experimented with mass sterilization on Jewish prisoners in concentration camps.
“I think it’s a very good thing that people are sensitive to this kind of remark, and I think it’s a very good thing that someone would respond immediately and deal with it if they thought that they heard an anti-Semitic comment,” Johnston said. “But in this case, it’s a misreading.”
The irony for Johnston is that he was trying to teach his students that ideas have consequences.
“So I’m pretty shocked to find the consequences — what I was talking about in lecture — is that I get seen as an example of prejudice.”
Grunfeld said Tuesday she may have misunderstood the context and intent of Johnston’s remarks, but that fact is insignificant.
“The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.”
Grunfeld also expressed skepticism that Johnston was in fact Jewish.
Asked directly by a reporter whether she believes Johnston is lying, she was unclear.
“Whether he is or is not, no one will know,” she said. “. . . Maybe he thought because he is Jewish he can talk smack about other Jews.”
Sheldon Goodman, GTA co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which speaks on behalf of the city’s organized Jewish community, called the incident “a very unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“This event is an appropriate reminder that great caution must be exercised before concluding a statement or action is anti-Semitic,” he said.