The following commentary is published with the permission of the author. It was originally published by the Times of Israel:
North American campuses are increasingly becoming hotbeds of anti-Semitism. Here is how one campus newspaper is fueling the anti-Israel crusade.
After the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, former AP Journalist Matti Friedman explained that the press is not an impartial observer in the Middle East conflict ? when facts are deliberately twisted in order to propagate the narrative of violent, oppressive Israel vs. victimized, peaceful Palestine, the journalist functions more as political advocate than objective reporter.
The AP is not unique in its anti-Israel bias. Smearing the state of Israel with accusations of apartheid, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing is just as in vogue at the Islamic University of Gaza as it is at any North American college campus. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed it firsthand.
This is the story of how one campus newspaper – my own – became a mouthpiece for Palestinian propaganda.
York University, located in Toronto, is Canada’s third largest university. It is home to over 400 student clubs, including Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). Last year, after repeatedly disturbing classes at the university, SAIA was delisted as an official student organization for the period May 2013 to January 2014. The club was not banned from campus; it reapplied for status in January 2014 and was re-instated. Nor was it an issue of free speech; York President Mamdouh Shoukri reaffirmed that the penalty was based solely on policy violations, not politics. Further, other clubs – including pro-Israel groups Hasbara and Hillel- have been sanctioned before.
However, none of these facts were relevant to the Excalibur, York University’s “autonomous” campus newspaper (student tuition fees finances its publication). Instead, the Excalibur assumed a role of political advocacy on behalf of the SAIA group – distorting truth, publishing lies, and suppressing dissenting opinions in order to parade the SAIA club as a double victim of racist Israel and a power-abusive York administration.
Who is the Excalibur Editorial Board?
Excalibur is certainly not masquerading as an objective newspaper. In an October 2014 op-ed, assistant news editor Ryan Moore declares that “media objectivity is a myth”. As such, it would be “misleading” to include all sides of an argument because doing so would “distract” rather than “inform”. Readers are told that reporting on all sides of an issue would be ridiculous (there are people who argue that “the earth is flat”) and dangerous (it can “normaliz[e] the practice of lynching” or “perpetuate the government’s [support for Israel]”). Lest unsuspecting readers be fooled into that nasty business of being allowed to think for themselves, Moore will decide for them which of two competing narratives is “the fundamental truth”.
In other words, why should readers demand critical analysis? With Big Brother at the helm, the fundamental truth is that pro-Israel viewpoints are as odious as support for the murder of African – Americans and as ludicrous as a flat-earth cosmography.
Tamara Khandaker, Excalibur’s former Editor-in-Chief, also has odd notions of what constitutes good journalism. In a 2014 editorial, she explains that she came to York University because of its political culture, specifically spurred by a video of the 2009 Israel-Palestine protest on campus. Although Khandaker concedes that she doesn’t want to “romanticise aggression” (a day prior to the protest, Jewish students were barricaded in the Hillel offices while a mob of 100 anti-Israel protestors shouted anti-Semitic threats outside) she wanted to be in the type of environment where people were “thinking progressively”. She envisions the role of the paper as a “driving force for change” and laments how “hard it is to put out an exciting paper” when the “campus can seem so dead”.
2014 wasn’t exactly a dull year for the university – York has frequently made local news for issues like campus crime and the ongoing construction of its subway line. But, of course, none of these events could be expected to excite the editor-in-chief who based her university decision on the exportation of the Middle-East conflict to campus. SAIA’s revocation and an entire winter semester without their protests has Khandaker declaring a crisis in the lack of student activism, making it a front page cover story, using the Palestinian flag to illustrate that story, informing readers that “SAIA has a point”, and complaining that she wants “more to write about”. Whew. Without SAIA, there is apparently no lifeblood to this dead campus.
Excalibur’s Obsession with Students Against Israeli Apartheid
In 2014, the Excalibur published more cover stories, more articles, and more featured quotes about SAIA and its representatives than all of the 400+ student clubs on campus. Combined.
None of these articles were explanatory; not one offers a critical analysis of SAIA’s platform.
This is important because although SAIA hides its radical agenda under euphemistic human-rights rhetoric, its true intentions are to destroy the state of Israel. The SAIA website states that one of its goals is “ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”. By framing Israel as a colonizer, it is implied that Jews have no legitimate connection to the land. Moreover, if Zionism itself is deemed intrinsically wrong ? as suggested by the “Zionism isREAL racism” sign outside SAIA’s York office? then Israel is actually “occupied Palestine” and there is no legitimate Jewish state.
This is not dialogue; this is not pro-peace. It is a genocidal, unilateral ideology. Remarkably, not even one of Excalibur’s articles gives readers this information. When facts don’t fit the narrative, they are discarded.
When the SAIA group staged Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) in March, arts editor Abul Malik wrote an op-ed in their defense, telling readers that IAW is important not necessarily for what it’s promoting but because it symbolizes the “the open discourse of ideas”. This endorsement is extremely misleading. First, it paints pro-Israel students who oppose the ideology and tactics of Israel Apartheid Week as enemies of free speech instead of the other legitimate voice in this supposed “dialogue”. Second, Malik lauds the Israel Apartheid movement as an example of how to engage in controversial discussions “without … knee jerk name calling and vicious repartee”, which is a gross misrepresentation of the racist and anti-Semitic hate crimes that have characterized IAW movements on campuses like the University of California, Los Angeles.
Other examples of Excalibur’s political advocacy on behalf of SAIA abound. This is from the month of November 2014 alone:
When undercover security officers were spotted at a SAIA-staged protest, Excalibur made it into a cover page story framed around SAIA member Aysha Syed’s assertion that “it has become normal for any kind of critical expression to be met with intimidation from security”. (Predictably, Excalibur did not mention the events that might have necessitated the precautionary security measures, such as the involvement of SAIA members in the 2009 barricading of Jewish students in the Hillel offices that resulted in police being called to campus).
When SAIA students disrupted a speech by York President Mamdouh Shoukri by dropping a “Stop Israel’s Apartheid Wall” banner from a third-floor staircase and then bragged on Facebook that “SAIA ruins York’s big day”, Excalibur claimed their actions were “bring[ing] attention to York’s alleged lack of commitment to social justice” (the lack of social justice is a reference to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel which was adopted by York’s student council but ultimately rejected by the board of governors).
When SAIA brought anti-Israel activist David Sheen to campus to discuss how “racism is ingrained within Israeli culture”, Excalibur sub-headlined the event as one that “reveal[ed] buried truths…”.
When some of the attendees at a York panel discussion expressed their hesitancy to divest from Israel, a SAIA member told Excalibur that “the panel did not reflect the vision that the student representatives had for this event”. Excalibur then chose a headline that solely reflected SAIA’s viewpoint: “Panel criticized for being one-sided”.
If this is hypocrisy, it is apparently lost on Excalibur.
Hammam Farah: Radical Campus Provocateur
The same policy violations that led to SAIA’s official club status being revoked also led to a one- year ban from campus for Hammam Farah, SAIA leader and York alumnus. Farah graduated in 2007 but has spent the last seven years stirring up anti-Israel sentiment on campus. He self-describes as “radicalized”. He proudly proclaims that he took part in the “barricading” of campus entrances in 2003. A 2008 video shows Farah at York’s entrance hall inciting a large crowd of students to cheer for an “intifada” (The first and second Palestinian intifadas were violent uprisings that killed hundreds of innocent civilians in over 140 terror attacks). He was criticized by Jewish organization B’nai Brith in August 2014 for promoting terrorist propaganda on Facebook and he responded by “laugh[ing]” off the accusations from the “Israel lobby”. In 2012, he announced his intent to screen a film that glorifies Leila Khaled, the terrorist who hijacked two passenger airplanes in 1969 and 1970. Yet, Excalibur still saw fit to print three op-eds by Farrah in a 10-month period, giving him a platform to tell York students that not divesting from Israel makes them responsible for “countless deaths, including the deaths of members of my family”.
In contrast, I tried to publish an op-ed explaining the anti-Semitism that belies the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel and was told that I had been rejected because my opinion was too biased and did not reflect the opinions of the editorial board.
Excalibur’s Photo Fraud & Other Distortions
Excalibur’s coup de maître of ‘investigative’ journalism is assistant news editor Ryan Moore`s October cover story headlined “York Invests in Supplier to Israeli Defense Forces”. Not surprisingly, the entire story is replete with lies.
At first glance, the fiery red graphic on the front page looks like an explosion. See what you think. There is no caption labeling the picture itself or its origins; underneath the photo is only a line from the story explaining that the Amphenol company supplies the Israeli military with fiber-optic electronics.
I was curious so I reverse Google searched the image and found that it was originally used in a Wikipedia page to illustrate a technological breakthrough in easing internet congestion. Other than the fact that both the Israel army and the World Wide Web make use of fiber optics, the picture has nothing to do with Israel and it has nothing to do with the Amphenol Company. So why was the picture chosen? Could it be because it looks especially dramatic in a story that describes Israel’s “drone technology” and “cluster bombs”? Worse, Excalibur rotated the image so that it’s not distinguishable as fiber optics. Obviously, the intent is for the photo to be mistaken for an explosion and evoke a false emotional response in readers.
The article goes on to feature three quotes from people who recommend divesting from Israel, but does not include even one quote representing the alternate view. Of course, questioning why Israel -the only democracy in the Middle East – is being singled out for boycotts while dictatorships like Iran and Saudi Arabia are routinely ignored might give the impression of analyzing the issue “objectively” and we all know how assistant news editor Ryan Moore feels about that.
But even more disturbing than a misleading photo or biased quote selection is that Excalibur’s relationship with SAIA has shaped its journalistic strategy such that there is scarce distinction between what SAIA is itself publicizing and what the Excalibur is reporting. For example, Excalibur falsely claims that “FLIR Systems Israel Ltd., an Israeli corporation, has many different subsidies around the globe.” FLIR systems is not an Israeli corporation – it is a multinational organization that had a branch in Israel (now dormant). The Excalibur also incorrectly writes that the Amphenol company “operates through its sole representative, Bar-Tec Ltd., which is based in Kfar-Saba Israel”. In fact, the company operates out of 33 other countries in addition to Israel. This information is easily found on the company website. If the Excalibur verified facts before publishing such a large cover story and writer Ryan Moore checked the company website, how could such a glaring error be made? There are no banal explanations for a distortion of this magnitude.
The far more likely explanation is that the Excalibur just relied on Hammam Farah’s propaganda in lieu of conducting its own primary research. Indeed, the SAIA group wrote in a Facebook post that Hammam Farah is the one who “recently discovered” the Israeli branch of the Amphenol company and the information also appears on a sign at a SAIA protest.
Then, in a November 28th opinion piece, Farah confirms his involvement in Ryan Moore`s cover story by congratulating the “Excalibur’s thorough and much-discussed piece exposing York’s investments in suppliers to the Israel army”.
More confirmation of how the SAIA group shapes Excalibur’s news coverage is found in a letter to the editor which applauds Excalibur for “reporting about the work that SAIA did to uncover these investments”. SAIA York also confirms this information on their official website. In September, SAIA writes that they are “mobilizing support [for their divestment campaign] by reaching out to student clubs…”. Then, under a picture of Excalibur’s October front cover, the club thanks the newspaper for publicizing the York Investment Holdings report that first appeared on the SAIA website: “York’s investigative journalism helped spread the word”. We see here that Excalibur didn’t really ‘discover’ anything; it helped propagate SAIA’s divestment campaign after SAIA reached out to it.
Put simply, Excalibur publicizes false information found on SAIA’s website and Facebook page, SAIA praises the newspaper for spreading its anti-Israel agenda, and both parties pat each other on the back for ‘investigative’ journalism. The paper is not independent; it’s SAIA’s propaganda arm.
On October 22nd 2014, a Muslim terrorist fatally gunned down Canadian soldier Nathan Cirillo who was standing guard at the Ottawa national war memorial. But the real story, according to Excalibur, was not of an innocent man murdered by a radical Islamist terrorist but of the hypothetical backlash against Muslims. The illustration that Excalibur used to accompany the story depicts a Muslim woman in a hijab falling off a cliff. It appears that the real victim of this tragedy is not Cpl. Nathan Cirillo; it’s Islam.
News Editor Ashley Glovasky also takes issue with the characterization of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Muslim convert who shot Cirillo, as a terrorist. Zehaf-Bibeau is described not as a terrorist but as “the terrorist in Ottawa, as [Prime Minister] Harper called him”. Glovasky asks: “How can we truly have pride in our country when our own prime minister seemed so quick to hold other cultures responsible for the attacks?… this does not make me proud of my country, [this makes me] resent it.”
And in case Excalibur readers still had any lingering doubts about Glovasky’s patriotism, her directives toward a nation in mourning make her loyalties clear: “instead of being united in grief”, she instructs, “we should unite to protect others who are now living in fear”.
Understand that Glovasky is not suggesting that we should be protecting Muslims against potential backlash in addition to grieving the death of an innocent soldier. She’s saying that’s what we should be doing instead. Poor word choice? Or is she diverting the focus from Cpl. Cirillo’s death to suit her political agenda?
This isn’t the first time that Excalibur has assumed the role of political propagandist and ended up playing footsie with terrorist –apologists. After York Student and ISIS fighter Mohamud Mohamed Mohamud was killed by Kurdish forces, Excalibur newspaper interviewed notorious anti-Israel linguist Noam Chomsky and other ‘experts’ to illuminate the factors that led to Mohamud’s radicalization. Chomsky implicates the “…extreme Islamophobia in the West…” and counsels “governments… to deal with… [the terrorists’] just concerns”.
In another article, the featured quotes explain that it’s the world we live in that “creates conditions” for terrorism and that York university can lead the fight against radicalization by “ promoting an environment of rational debate and dialogue”. Didn’t you know? Terrorists just want to have a conversation.
Why All This Matters
In 2009, Israeli-Arab reporter Khaled Abu Toameh cautioned that “we should not be surprised if the next generation of jihadists comes not from the Gaza Strip or the mountains and mosques of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but from university campuses across the U.S”.
This is not hyperbole. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise and they’re becoming more and more vicious. In universities in Atlanta and Oregon, the mailboxes of Jewish fraternities have been vandalized with swastikas. Jewish students at Harvard University have received mock eviction notices. Closer to home, a 20 year old student from my own university went to fight for ISIS and was killed in Syria this September. Most alarmingly, a member of York University’s Ahmadiyya Muslim Students’ Association, speaking in anonymity, has warned that there are students with ideologies so extreme that they “…don’t completely condemn [ISIS’] actions”.
This moral ambiguity is heinous and dangerous, but it should not surprise anyone. As Excalibur’s assistant news editor Ryan Moore forewarned readers, “objectivity is a myth” and that holds true in war and journalism both.