As the “punch a Zionist today” controversy rages, many in the Jewish community are themselves swinging wildly, repudiating all of McGill University for one student representative who tweeted that ugly call to violence. I abhor this student hooligan’s outrageous behaviour and the equally appalling support he received from many in the galleries during a confrontation over his continuing to serve as a student rep. 

Still, it’s important to acknowledge the McGill administration’s condemnations and appreciate administrators’ challenges here, while condemning the broader academic culture at McGill and elsewhere that has so many punch-drunk on Israel-hatred.

Both McGill’s provost Chris Manfredi and principal Suzanne Fortier issued statements denouncing the Twitter-thug and demanding civility on campus. They couldn’t mention the student’s name or go into detail because legal restrictions prevent university leaders from calling out university students. (I don’t mention the student’s name for another reason: I refuse to give him publicity.)

The resulting bureaucratese that afflicts their statements reflects deeper dilemmas. In a democracy with free speech, in an academic world committed to free thought, at a time when abusive speech is commonplace on social media and when engaged, frankly, in a broader struggle against narrow-minded politically correct types who shut out ideas they dislike, it’s hard to start throwing students out for obnoxious tweets. Moreover, if McGill initiated a disciplinary process, administrators would subject the university to a lawsuit if they had already called out the student by name and essentially convicted him without due process.

I struggle with this dilemma in a different way. My first instinct is to call on my colleagues to shun the student, to resist his verbal violence by saying, essentially, “I won’t accept someone who threatens others in my classroom.” But while that proposal serves as a nice rallying cry and – dare I say it –  a punchline, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. First, as someone fighting the boycotting of Israel, I hesitate to start boycotting critics of Israel.

Second, as someone who often takes unpopular positions, starting with my support for Israel, I don’t want a university filled with people being shunned willy-nilly.

And third, as someone committed to free speech and academic freedom, I would much rather defeat this student hooligan – and his enablers – in a free marketplace of ideas rather than help the university become even more of an unfree minefield. We need clearer lines drawn regarding civility, but before incidents occur, not in reaction to them.

McGill is like most universities these days when it comes to being politically correct and harbouring too many people who are hostile to Israel. We in the pro-Israel community act like doddering doctors fighting strep throat with a lozenge rather than antibiotics. Reacting to the symptoms, we ignore the underlying disease. Universities, including McGill, must start becoming as outraged by anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist hooliganism as they are by other forms of bigotry. 

A student representative who urged people to “punch” feminists or gay or black activists would not keep his position very long. Universities should form task forces examining the impact of the ongoing, systematic demonization of Israel on campus as an educational problem and a community challenge.

The hate swarm against Israel not only bubbles over into Twitter attacks on Zionists and Jews. It has also distorted classroom culture, poisoned campus politics and ruined the university experience for thousands of Jewish students. 

That this longstanding assault is now simply accepted as business as usual is the real scandal. Most administrators haven’t been pressured enough from donors, alumni, and parents to make respecting all students – even Jews and Zionists – a priority. So while it might be easy to bash McGill because one student hooligan there has attracted attention, this problem is deeper, more systematic and so ubiquitous that most people no longer even notice it. 

Gil Troy will speak at Holy Blossom Temple on March 28 about Israel-U.S. relations in the era of Donald Trump. The CJN is a sponsor.