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Israel-Palestine conference controversy continues

June 17, 2009

The controversy over SSHRC funding of a York/Queen’s-sponsored conference on Israel/Palestine continues, with increasing numbers of groups publishing open letters to SSHRC president Chad Gaffield.

First, members of the Faculty of Law at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School sent a letter to Dr. Gaffield expressing their “extreme dismay” at his accession to political pressure in requiring conference organizers to submit a pre-conference report after being requested to do so by Minister of State Gary Goodyear. Part of their letter states:

We believe that SSHRC made a serious error in acceding to political interference in this manner. Whether or not SSHRC ultimately submits to the demand for a new peer review that better meets the Minister’s political ends, and whether or not the funding for this conference is ultimately jeopardized, we fear that SSHRC has already compromised the autonomy of academic research in this country.

The Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) has also published a letter to Dr. Gaffield. QUFA quotes from SSHRC’s policies in criticizing the move, suggesting that SSHRC violated its own practices:

Program changes: Minor changes (e.g., replacement of guest speakers, the addition of a new topic) do not require prior SSHRC approval provided the event remains essentially the same. Approval for major program changes (e.g., changing the theme or focus of the event) must be requested in writing to SSHRC. If you are unsure about what constitutes a minor or major change, consult a SSHRC program officer.

Guest speakers change: Clearly, it is in the nature of workshops and conferences that some guest speakers may have to be replaced at the last moment. No prior SSHRC approval is required for such limited changes but they must be mentioned in the report of activities submitted at the conclusion of the grant.

Science for Peace, a Canadian NGO centred at University of Toronto, has also issued a statement (published on the Open Anthropolgy blog), in which they defend the conference and criticize the groups who raised the alarm with Minister Goodyear, before ultimately calling for the minister’s resignation:

We are unequivocally opposed to Minister Gary Goodyear’s request for a second peer review of the conference. We understand that there are allegations from B’nai Brith and from the Canadian Council for Israeli and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) that this conference is anti-Semitic and aims to de-legitimize the State of Israel. This entirely misrepresents the conference, its participants and its aims. The accusation is provocative and slanderous. The allegations reflect astonishing ignorance of the research and analytic work being done by innumerable scholars and concerned citizens to peacefully resolve this seemingly intransigent issue.

Alas, not everyone agrees. Andrew Hunt, assistant professor of history at University of Waterloo, published a criticism of CAUT’s call for the minister’s resignation, suggesting that Mr. Goodyear’s call for review was the “right thing” to do:

Goodyear’s request is not an insult to the council. It is, instead, a reasonable reaction to the demands of citizens who’ve been contacting him and voicing their concerns about this conference…

The call for Goodyear’s resignation makes academics look insular and arrogant. It creates the image of stuffy intellectuals who think they’re above everybody else and don’t have to account for how their money is being spent.

Alas, the Israel/Palestine question is political dynamite, and so is bound to raise political heat on all sides. Intervention by government ministers in the decisions of arm’s-length bodies, though, is something different altogether, and sets a dangerous precedent. This is another example of the complicated relationship between politics and academia, and emphasizes the need to depoliticize research policy and practice.

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