JTA – September 15, 2011
A Jewish professor in Toronto was forced to defend himself against allegations of anti-Semitism in an episode tinged with irony.
Cameron Johnston, who has been teaching at York University for more than 30 years, was the focus of controversy following a Sept. 12 lecture on critical thinking and whether one is entitled to one’s opinions, even if they are extreme.
“All Jews should be sterilized” is an example of such an extreme opinion, Johnston told the 500 students.
One of them, 22-year-old Sarah Grunfeld, stormed out of the class. She contacted Hasbara at York, an on-campus Israel advocacy group, which sent a news release to media and other Jewish community groups calling for Johnston’s firing. Blogs and social media picked up the story.
“In the lecture, I discussed that the course focuses on the texts and not ‘opinions,’ ” Johnston said in a statement. “In fact, I stated that for this course opinions are not relevant and I questioned the common idea that everyone is entitled to their opinion.
“I pointed out that everyone is not entitled to their opinion by giving the example of someone having an anti-Semitic opinion which is clearly not acceptable. This was an example of the fact that opinions can be dangerous and that none of us really do believe that all opinions are acceptable.”
Grunfeld told the Toronto Star that she may have misunderstood the context and intent of Johnston’s remarks, but that doesn’t matter.
“The words ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context, I still think that’s pretty serious,” she said. (Emphasis added)
In a statement, the newly created Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said it believes Johnston’s “use of an abhorrent statement was intended to demonstrate that some opinions are simply not legitimate. This point was, without ill intentions, taken out of context and circulated in the Jewish community.”
“Professor Johnston, himself a member of the Jewish community, may regret his wording but should not see his reputation tarnished,” the center said. “This event is an appropriate reminder that great caution must be exercised before concluding a statement or action is anti-Semitic.”