The Volokh Conspiracy

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Amnesty International Canada Questions Freedom of Speech and Assembly

An extraordinary letter from Amnesty Canada suggests that public universities shouldn't allow pro-Israel events to proceed


On November 20, a pro-Israel group at York University hosted an event entitled "Reservists on Duty: Hear from former Israeli Defence Force soldiers." Various leftist campus groups vowed to shut the event down. They didn't, thanks to a heavy police presence, but they did disrupt the event while shouting anti-Israel and pro-terrorism slogans; a few lovely individuals chanted to the organizers, "Intifada, Intifada, go back to the ovens." Scuffles between protesters seeking to block entrance to the event and attendees often broke out; contemporary news sources almost universally attribute blame for the violence to the protesters.

Amnesty Canada has now weighed in with an extraordinary letter to York University's president. If you think Amnesty spoke up in favor of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and against violence and disruption by protesters, well, you haven't been paying attention to how groups that used to believe in human rights have evolved into far leftist activist groups with a particular obsession with hating Israel (my bolding):

Amnesty International is writing this Open Letter to request that you convene an independent review into all concerns associated with the "Reservists on Duty: Hear from former Israeli Defence Force soldiers" event, organized by the Herut Zionism Club at York University on November 20, 2019.

As you know, this controversial event was met with protests which descended into violent confrontations outside the venue. It was clearly foreseeable that there would be controversy and protest, given the history of human rights violations committed by Israeli Defence Force soldiers amidst the illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories. That was exacerbated by the fact that members of the Jewish Defense League, a far-right group classified as a terrorist organization in the U.S. and with a record of violence and assaults at protests, were allowed on campus.

Amnesty International has an active and dynamic student group at York University that works on a range of campaigns, including our serious concerns about widespread and longstanding human rights violations associated with Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The group brings a positive voice for human rights to York, in keeping with the university's encouragement of student agency and leadership. They actively defend and promote universal human rights protection for all people, including the freedoms of speech, expression and assembly and the obligation to condemn war crimes occurring anywhere in the world.

While Amnesty International at York had no official presence at the protest, a number of our members chose to participate in an individual capacity, as is clearly their right. We are very troubled to learn that some members were physically assaulted during the confrontations that occurred and have been receiving threatening messages on their cell phones. They are now fearful when they are on campus and have taken to limiting their movements, staying in groups, and ensuring that there are safe spaces to study in security.

It is evident that the considerable confusion, tension and fear associated with the November 20th event and its aftermath lingers. That is clear from the number and nature of statements and resolutions that have been issued by various student groups on campus. We have noted from your statement on November 21st that you have taken two steps in response, namely: (1) tasking the Vice President of Equity, People and Culture and your Division of Students to take the lead in developing a strategy for "fostering a more productive dialogue around these issues"; and (2) the launch of an upcoming Freedom of Speech Working Group to "make specific recommendations on how to create a more respectful climate on campus for the discussion of difficult topics."

Given conflicting views about what happened that evening, the worrying ongoing impact on students at York and the important human rights considerations that are at stake, Amnesty International urges York University to go further and convene an independent review of all circumstances associated with the Herut Zionism Club event and its aftermath, with a mandate that includes examination of:

considerations that were taken into account in approving the event, including the fact that the speakers were former members of a military with a clear record of responsibility for war crimes and other serious human rights violations;

decisions made with respect to the presence of members of the Jewish Defense League on campus;

Note: (1) Amnesty does not condemn the disruption and antisemitic remarks made at the event; (2) Amnesty is apparently taking the position that anyone who has ever served in the Israeli armed forces should be treated as a presumptive war criminal [as the spouse of an IDF veteran, you can stick it where the sun don't shine, Amnesty]; (3) Amnesty suggests that hosting a pro-Israel event is inviting violence and disruption, and the university should therefore consider whether it was appropriate to allow such an event to proceed; and (4) Amnesty suggests that a public university should be screening members of the public for their political affiliations before they should be allowed to