Richard Robertson
Richard Robertson
Academic, Writer, Advocate.

In Defense of Carleton University’s Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies

Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Sadly, with increasing frequency, I am bombarded with news of anti-Semitic occurrences in Canada. Increasingly, the incidents are taking place on Canadian post-secondary campuses. That is why, this past Friday, it was with great haste and indifference that I dutifully scrolled through a press release from Bnai Brith Canada in regards to another such incident. Bnai Brith were calling for the denouncement and condemnation by Carleton University of allegedly anti-Semetic remarks made by a professor at the university. Disheartened that the academic realm was once again being sullied by hateful vitriol, I pressed on.

When I read that the remarks, which are indeed both concerning and anti-Semitic, were part of a direct attack against the Center for Jewish Studies at Carleton University by a member of the school’s faculty, I was devastated. As an advocate against anti-Semitism, with particular interest in the proliferation of anti-Semitism at post-Secondary institutions, the frequency with which I encounter narratives of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses necessitates that I literally have to pick and choose which incidents to discuss and write about. This time, however, though I am not a Carleton student, the remarks felt eerily personal and wholly undue.

On February 10th, 2021, an event was held online by a Carleton student organization, “Carleton University Students for Scholars at Risk”. The event, which was endorsed by the university was designed to criticize the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism for its perceived limiting of genuine condemnations of Israel. A panelist at the event and Professor of Sociology at the university, Dr. Nahla Abdo, took it upon herself to allege that Jewish money was corrupting the institution. She made reference to an Israeli lobby at the university and referenced buildings named after Jewish donors as evidence. Dr. Abdo then proceeded to attack  Carleton’s Center for Jewish Studies directly. She is quoted by Bnai Brith as stating her opinion of the institute is one of, “basically Israel studies, not really too much Jewish studies.” She later accused the Center of appropriating culture from Palestinians and presenting it to students as Israeli. Dr. Abdo also accused Israel of exploiting Ethiopian Jews as cheap labor and committing a genocide against the Palestinians. However, it is her comments in regards to the Carleton’s Center for Jewish Studies that are most concerning to myself.

You see, Carleton’s Max and Tessie Zelikovitz Center for Jewish Studies, of which I am a proud affiliate, is in my humble but somewhat knowledgeable opinion, one the nation’s finest centers for Jewish scholarship. The Zelikovitz Center, from its benefactors to its mandate, represent the finer aspects of Canadian society. The Center exists due to the generosity of the Zelekovitz family, who made their fortune, as immigrants to Canada, through generations of hard work as leaders in the country’s leather goods trade. A Canadian success story, with little correlation to Israel other than that its subjects were Jewish.

As for the Center, which Dr. Abdo accused of veiling its support for Israel under the auspice of studying Jewish culture, its well publicized mandate is outlined on its website. The passage eloquently states that its aim is the promotion of “scholarly inquiry into all aspects of the Jewish experience from ancient times to the present and serves as a meeting point for scholars and the wider community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The ZC encourages the growth of course offerings in Jewish studies which deal in historical, religious, social, cultural, and political aspects of Jewish life from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Situated in the nation’s capital, the ZC expands Carleton’s presence in Jewish studies both nationally and internationally by fostering research collaboration and by sponsoring visiting scholars and researchers in the field. The ZC takes great pleasure in reaching out to the broader community through public lectures and educational programs, while encouraging intercultural and interfaith dialogue. By promoting academic inquiry into the diversity of the Jewish experience, one that has been enriched by encounters with different societies and cultures around the world, the ZC also plays an important role in Carleton’s interdisciplinary research focus on global identities and globalization.” Once again, well intentioned and pertinent, yes. A masquerading of a pro-Israel agenda, not so much.

But, could Dr. Abdo be right? Could the center really, despite its claims and the nature of its funding, be using its position of academic prominence to further an Israeli agenda? I believe the evidence I am about to present correlates with only one answer, a resounding no.

Firstly, the Zelikovitz Center is anything but insular. Its very functioning involves integrating the work of academics at Carleton, including over 70 of Dr. Abdo’s colleagues with those of like minded academics and non academic persons and institutions from around the globe. There is no requirement to be Jewish and there certainly is no citizenship requirement. While there are many Jewish scholars at the center, there are also those who are not of the Jewish faith. Its affiliates come from around the globe, lured by the center’s connections to events around the world and by access to Carleton’s library system, but the majority are Canadian.

So, what do those in the Zelikovitz Center do? For the most part, they carry on conducting their work at academic institutions and other entities.  For example, outside of interacting with the Zelikovitz Center, I spend my days as an advocate for the Jewish community in Canada and as a graduate student in History at York University. On a routine day, the advancement of a Zionist agenda is really not a factor in my life. I find Israeli politics to be fascinating, as I joke with my supervisor at York, Israeli politics are a political macabre second only to that of Inter-war Poland. However, that is as far as my efforts go when it comes to Israel or Israel Studies.

What the Zelikovitz center does enable, is really truly exceptional. The Zelikovitz center is a community, and a beautifully diverse one at that. It is a place for like-minded academics to congregate and champion their field, which is the study of Jewish culture and all its subfields, for instance, mine is Holocaust Studies. The center is constantly promoting events and sharing information. None of which, in recent memory, has had to do with Israel.

The last three events I attended were a discussion with Animee Paul; an African-Canadian and Jewish politician who is now the leader of the federal Green Party, a screening of the film “Shared Legacies”; which chronicles the teamwork of both Jews and African Americans during the birth of the civil rights movement in the United States after the Second World War, and a discussion with Dr. Rohee Dasgupta, a professor from the Jindal Global University in India, on how to teach about the holocausts in a cosmopolitan world. While all three were fascinating events, there was no championing of the state of Israel. The events were designed, like the Zelikovitz Center itself, to advance the study of Jewish culture.

The Zelikovitz Center does have a partner institution it collaborates with. In addition to its relationship with the Canadian Holocaust Education Society (CHES), the Zelikovitz Center has a formal relationship with Gratz College, which is located in Pennsylvania. Dr. Abdo was correct in part, there are connections between the Zelikovitz Center and Israel. There is a  course at Carleton, offered through the Zelikovitz Center, that discusses Israel. Dr. Abdo’s remarks make it seem as if the course is entitled “Israel Over Everything” and is taught by Rabbi Kahane himself. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The course is entitled “Israeli-Palestinian Relations” and discusses the human rights considerations, material needs, and ethics involved in an effort to find a workable solution to the present issues in the region. The Zelikovitz Center also offers the opportunity to study in Israel, which is nullified as support for Dr. Abdo’s bigoted claims, when one realizes that the Zelikovitz Center also offers a program for students to attend to Germany on trips subsidized by the German government.

What makes the misinformed and vitriolic remarks of Dr. Abdo anti-Semitic is a recurring trend I am quickly growing tired of. That being, the completely undue conflation of anti- Zionist sentiments with those that are overtly anti-Jewish. Canadian Palestinians and those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have every right to protest when they feel the human rights of Palestinians are violated or that the Palestinian peoples are unduly persecuted. However, to suggest that those of us who do the same for our culture that they are doing for theirs are trying to triumph the rights of one minority over another is ludicrously insulting. It is worth noting that this entire incident unfolded during an event orchestrated by a Palestinian student organization to discuss how the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism limits their ability to criticize Israeli actions.

I am a proud Canadian Jew. I am passionate about my work and about protecting the rights of the global Jewish minority and believe unabashedly in the existence of the State of Israel. I am also intelligent enough to not allow my personal beliefs to cloud or colour my judgement as an advocate and academic. Israel, like all nations of the world is not perpetually innocent, and when condemnation is due, it is due.  Of note, as a Jew, I try to hold Israel to a higher standard than others. The cost of Israeli transgressions is felt around the Jewish world and the State of Israel advertises itself as a Jewish nation-state, indirectly linking the global Jewry, whether they like it or not, to its successes and failures.

It appears that Dr. Abdo was unable to do the same. Her desire to support the Palestinian rights movement at Carleton was a benign, even laudable, act for a professor, but her conflation of the denouncing of Israel for allegedly violating Palestinian human rights with the denouncing of  the advancement of Jewish rights and culture made her remarks malignant. Like a defensive cytokine storm, she latched on to the most identifiable of Jewish entities within the Carleton body, naively classified it as a threat to the Palestinian rights movement, and attempted to destroy its hard-earned prestige and credibility.

This is truly a deplorable example of what not to do as a professional academic, especially a senior professor comfortably situated in your position. Dr. Abdo’s office is in the Loeb building. Likely one of the donorships she took umbrage with in her remarks. The Loeb family were 20th century Jewish immigrants from Russia to North America who turned a small confectionary store into a grocery empire. Carleton’s affiliates should be championing stories such as that of the Loeb and Zelikovitz families, not lamenting over their generosity. It is a precedent for all immigrants to Canada to follow and one that is admirable to those from all religious creeds and nationalities. Never will I stand for, especially from those in positions of power, which is exactly the place from which Dr. Abdo spoke, the denouncing of the efforts of those who after a lifetime of hard work and determination created a better life for themselves and their families and still had the wherewithal to unselfishly donate their hard earned rewards towards the betterment of all of Canadian society.

It is incumbent upon the faculty of our universities to hold themselves to the highest of standards. They are not only responsible for teaching and educating the next generation of scholars, but are encumbered as the gatekeepers of critical knowledge. A professor, using the pulpit provided to them due to their academic notoriety to disseminate misinformation and to triumph anti-Semitic views, is akin to a judge using their seat on the bench to resolve personal vendettas.

As academics, we have a duty. We must refrain from letting personal opinions cloud our public disseminations. We’ve undertaken great personal sacrifices to absorb and analyze immense quantities of specialized knowledge. If we want to be treated as professional experts, we must act as such. You expect your doctor or accountant to approach each one of their files in an unbiased manner. So to should there be the expectation that professional academics, those who profit off of their ability to obtain and disseminate knowledge, approach each of their professional engagements, which include speaking at university sanctioned events, in a non-arbitrary manner.

Anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism. It does not matter from where it spouts or the context in which it is spread. Taking pot shots at an academic center committed to the studying of a minority culture and to the betterment of the greater community in which it exists should not be tolerated on any university campus. What was said, was said by someone who should have known better at an event endorsed by Carleton University. Carleton needs to take action. The Zelikovitz Center has punched above its weight class and done so much for the Carleton and Ottawa communities. It is time that these heavy-weight institutions enter the fray and defend the little Jewish studies center that could.

Carleton University Should Condemn Antisemitism, Take Action on Professor’s Remarks


About the Author
Richard Robertson was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and is a proud Thornhillian. He holds a Juris Doctor (Dalhousie University, 2017) and is presently a graduate student in York University's Department of History where his research focuses on the field of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is a member of the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies and is presently a Research Associate at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Center for Jewish Studies at York University.
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