VIU Talk Protested by Palestinian Activists

Freelance journalist Jen Gerson delivered a lecture at VIU called “Free Speech in the Digital Age” on Wednesday, January 10, 2024. However, the idea of open discourse came to be challenged in the face of protests from audience members.

Photo by: Sophia Wasylinko

03.07.2024 | News

Freelance journalist Jen Gerson delivered a lecture at VIU called “Free Speech in the Digital Age” on Wednesday, January 10, 2024. As the inaugural event of the 2024 Malaspina Fellowship Program, the talk on journalistic freedom was meant to represent the values of free discussion between students.

However, the idea of open discourse came to be challenged. In the face of protests from audience members about an anti-Palestinian article Gerson had written on October 24, the question period was abruptly ended by the moderator, Liberal Studies Department chair Dr. David Livingstone.

Gerson was invited by Livingstone before the publication of the article that sparked the protest. He chose her because of her previous commentary on freedom of speech and the Online News Act. By the time the article was published, arrangements had already been made for her to speak on-campus. 

The article in question was published on The Line, an independent news site co-founded by Gerson. Titled “This is a real mask-off moment for the left, eh?” the article is a lamentation of support for Palestinian liberation. Apparently,“the left” includes CUPE, academia, and “the corrupted Twitter-verse.” 

Including “academia” in this list illustrates Gerson’s unfamiliarity with the topic: universities have not been friendly places for advocates of Palestinian liberation. Students’ unions at York and McGill faced sanctions from their respective universities for adopting pro-Palestine policies, while students at UBC have faced harassment for their activism. Academics are no stranger to repression on this issue: a 2022 report by Independent Jewish Voices Canada highlighted the extent and severity of suppression academics face when voicing pro-Palestinian sentiments. 

Regardless of whether or not this support actually exists, Gerson equates support for Palestinian liberation to support for terrorism, baby killings, and anti-Semitism—playing on the trope of the terroristic and rape-crazed Arab—and dismisses accusations that Israel is a settler-colonial state without much apparent interest in debating its merits. 

This particular passage is emblematic of the tone of the article (emphasis added):

There is nothing more bizarre than seeing pictures of soft-headed proggies holding signs like “Queers for Palestine,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that a Palestine run by Hamas is one in which the Queers would be pushed from the top floors of whatever is left of Gaza’s multi-story buildings once Israel is done bombing them.

Gerson’s comments fall under what queer Jewish writer and activist Sarah Schulman called “pinkwashing,” a rhetorical trick wherein war is justified under the guise of protecting queer rights. The pinkwashing argument goes like this: Palestinians are homophobic. Israel isn’t. Therefore, Israel’s invasion of Gaza is justified because it advances queer rights. It remains to be proven, however, how destroying their homes and killing their family protects the rights of queer people in Palestine.

One can’t help but ask: were there people living in those buildings once? What happened to them? Who is reveling in atrocity and killing? It’s certainly not supporters of Palestinian liberation.

While Gerson goes on to say “one can be deeply sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians as a people” without supporting Hamas, none of that sympathy can be found in her writing. Aside from that glib allusion to the leveling of Gaza, she does not otherwise mention “the plight of Palestinians,” nor does she contextualize Hamas’s attack within the multi-decade Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

As of the article’s publication date, 5,791 Palestinians had been killed by Israel in three weeks. As of this writing, the death toll exceeds 30,717, but the real number is likely much higher; the collapse of the Gazan civil administration makes real counts impossible.

Even if one ignores the previous 75+ years of Israeli occupation, condemns Hamas’s retaliation as uniquely barbarous and evil, and views the population of Gaza as deserving targets of Israeli retaliation, it remains the case that killing almost 6,000 people as retaliation for 1,400 (later revised to “about 1,200”) is nothing more than an absurdly disproportionate act of bloodlust. Revenge should not be a matter of national policy. Gerson doesn’t appear to care.

Gerson ends the article by stating that “It’s going to be difficult for the rest of us to take any of you fuckers seriously ever again.” It’s no wonder organizers in Nanaimo were up in arms about her being invited to speak.

Fourth-year Sociology student and VIU Muslim Women’s Club co-president Sara Kishawi has been an active organizer of pro-Palestine events in Nanaimo. In collaboration with the Muslim Students’ Association and various community groups, Kishawi has played a major role in creating an unusually vibrant activist scene in town. She was also involved in the protest at Gerson’s talk.

Kishawi took issue with both the tone and content of Gerson’s article. “I felt like I was reading a Twitter rant,” she said. “If it was a Twitter rant, it would’ve been pretty easy to ignore.”

“It was a lot of disinformation.” She emphasized the term disinformation—rather than misinformation—because “it was clearly done on purpose.” 

But it wasn’t originally meant to be a protest, Kishawi said. “[Gerson] was here to talk about free speech. We’re not protesting that.” Instead, the students and community members were hoping to have the same type of open discussion the Malaspina Fellowship and Gerson’s journalism were meant to embody. 

The plan was to disrupt the question period. Organizers prepared a list of questions to ask Gerson, which they handed out to audience members before the talk began. An email circulated by the Muslim Women’s Club on January 9 stated: “We are not looking to enter a debate with this journalist, only to fill the seats and ask pointed questions.”

Gerson opened the talk by announcing that she knew she was going to be protested and took this as a compliment. It was a high mark in her journalistic career to have written something worth getting up in arms about, and she claimed to be eager to answer any questions the audience had. 

But by the second question about the October 24 article, her tone had changed from one of glib confidence to annoyed impatience. “[She was] not answering our questions at all,” Kishawi said. “Just ‘Email me, find my email, send me an email,’ all that.” It appeared she wasn’t so eager to answer questions after all. Eventually, it seemed like the moderator stopped calling on people who he believed were with the protestors.

Talks like Gerson’s are usually allowed to run a while past their official end time if there’s lots of questions and the space isn’t needed afterwards. Although no later events were set to take place in the same room that evening, Livingstone ended the question period just as scheduled. Many audience members lingered after and chatted, mostly about the protest. Attendees generally appeared ambivalent toward or supportive of the protest.

Kishawi claimed she knew of one person who emailed Gerson their questions as the journalist had requested. However, “[Gerson] did not elaborate. She was not open for that discussion as she said she would be.”

In addition to emailing Gerson, several protestors sent emails complaining about the lecture and requesting an apology from Vancouver Island University and from Social Sciences Dean Elizabeth Brimacombe.

According to Kishawi, their efforts proved fruitless. “[The] answer we got back was ‘Okay, we’ll speak to the professor, but we like to have open conversation.’ So not a lot came of that.”

Livingstone and a spokesperson for the university confirmed that both the President’s Office and the Dean of Social Sciences had received complaints about the event.

Because Gerson was not invited to speak about the article, Livingstone did not expect any controversy. He stressed that neither the article nor her talk necessarily reflect the views of himself or VIU. “In my mind, there was a demarcation,” he said.

Livingstone became aware of the protest only the night before Gerson’s talk. He refrained from commenting on it but commended the protestors on their conduct during the lecture. “To be fair, [they] did not disrupt Jen’s speech. They waited until [the] question period. I appreciate that.”

When asked about the conclusion of the question period, Livingstone said, “There was some misunderstanding at the end. It’s the moderator’s responsibility to ensure the discussion is coming back to the scheduled topic.” 

He likened it to a student trying to change the topic of a seminar in a political studies or history class. “It would be important for us to allow them to voice some of their concerns,” he said.

Livingstone believes bringing in controversial speakers is good because it encourages “vigorous debate.” (Gerson’s talk certainly sparked debate, but not on the content itself.) 

“That’s sometimes a misunderstanding that a professor who brings someone out is doing so because they endorse everything that person says,” Livingstone said. “That’s not the case. Nor does that speaker represent the university’s position on anything.” 

“I find it problematic when speakers who have spread disinformation are using that disinformation to justify a genocide,” Kishawi said. She pointed to the unevidenced claim that Hamas beheaded forty babies on October 7 as an example.

The criticisms of activists like Kishawi follow months of difficulties with VIU’s administration and a statement from the President’s Office that many (including Kishawi) have described as troubling. More recently, the Students’ Union’s statement—quietly released on their website—has provoked similar criticisms. Gerson’s talk was a single episode in a longer conflict about VIU’s role in facilitating dialogue about and responding to international crises.

“I fully stand behind freedom of speech, but I do think there should not be that platform given at a university where people are still learning,” Kishawi said. “The line should be drawn when there’s a speaker that has spread justification for genocide through disinformation.”

Poster for Poetree submissions. Deadline: November 1 at 11:59 pm.

Courtesy of the VIU Muslim Women’s Club

Borna Zargarian

Borna Zargarian is a 3rd-year History major and Philosophy minor and co-president of the History Students' Association. After pursuing a master's in History, he plans to teach high school English and History.

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