What does one make of an academic who attempts to label all criticism of Israeli policy “anti-Semitic”?  This is the favoured tactic of Dr. Henry Srebrnik, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. In a recent article submitted to the Prince Arthur Herald, Professor Srebrnik adopts a strategy more often employed by left-wing university activists obsessed with political correctness.

Dr. Srebrnik insists that if Jewish students at York University find overt criticism of Israel offensive then the speech or expression must be censored in order to provide a “safe space.”  He is particularly upset over an acrylic painting on display over one of the entrance foyers to the Student Centre.  The mural titled “Palestinian Roots” depicts Israeli aggression and occupation from a Palestinian viewpoint, which professor Srebrnik claims is an anti-Semitic statement, not a critique of the Israeli government.  As his op-ed suggests, the painting demonstrates a “callous disregard for the feelings and emotional welfare” of Jewish students. 

Professor Srebrnik’s real motives, however, have less to do with sheltering Jewish students from hate and more to do with intimidating those who dare criticize Israeli foreign policy. It’s not “hurt feelings” he’s protecting but rather his own worldview. In other words, Professor Srebrnik is a bootlegger in political correctness concerning Israel.      

However, it is the long-term implications of professor Srebrnik’s stance on academic freedom that are most disturbing. Suppose that a University of Ottawa professor were to provide required readings concerning the illegal invasion of Iraq. If a visiting American student found the material offensive, should the articles be removed from the syllabus? In Henry Srebrnik’s Orwellian world, the “insensitive” professor should be sanctioned for spreading anti-American propaganda. 

Likewise, a death and dying course may involve a critique of disability rights activists, such as Not Dead Yet, and their anti-euthanasia mindset. A disabled student could take offence by claiming the professor is spreading hate in the form of “eugenics” discourse. A “safe space” would then be required to protect the disabled from “harmful” ideas.   

Furthermore, a prohibitionist feminist may find the idea of sex work oppressive, exploitive, and inherently violent, but a professor may posit the view that prostitution is just another form of labour. Research may highlight how Liberals side with the autonomy of sex workers over state paternalism. Does this mean that the professor promotes misogyny if some radical feminists feel offended? 

Now let’s apply this same logic to professor Srebrnik’s work. If he fails to discuss the Palestinian point of view in his political science classes, or if he presents a pro-Israeli bias, Palestinian students could claim their “safe space” was violated and accuse professor Srebrnik of spreading hate. Professor Srebrnik would have to explain to his administration how he knows better than Arabic students do as to what constitutes anti-Palestinian rhetoric.   

In all seriousness, no credible professor would entertain implementing the kind of politically correct ideology forwarded by Dr. Srebrnik. This is because any setting that prides itself in academic freedom—including the University of Ottawa—would be undermining its own mandate by suppressing the free flow of ideas. 

When students enter a classroom, a professor’s job is to make them feel uncomfortable about their own preconceived notions, not to make them feel comfortable or “safe” from competing claims. Campus life can have the same impact on disrupting student thought, and the painting by a former York University graduate was effective in this regard—it made a few Jewish students and one PEI professor feel uncomfortable. Welcome to university! Those feelings of discomfort mark the beginning of critical thinking. Dialogue will only accelerate this process.       

For professor Srebrnik, however, the student’s artistic endeavour concerning the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not open for discussion. Instead, “safe spaces,” censorship, and accusations of anti-Semitism are more appropriate responses to expression Professor Srebrnik finds “disturbing.”   

This form of political correctness has a single purpose in mind—erasing from memory the daily reality faced by Palestinians. While the mural’s intent was to bring that reality to life, professor Srebrnik would prefer we all be left in the dark.           

Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa.  He can be reached at schamber@uottawa.ca.