Hopefulness in Times of Hate – Letters to and From a Law School

It has been challenging times for law students these last several years. The current 3L cohort began their studies in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic and has been attending law school in times of economic uncertainty, technological change and heated world conflicts. Recently, students have been struggling with processing the crisis in the Middle East including the deadly and horrific terror attacks of Hamas on Israeli civilians, its hostage taking, the ensuing devastating Israeli military action and the death of too many Palestinians. Our student communities are suffering. So many of them have friends, relatives and loved ones living in Gaza and Israel, and they need our emotional support.

At home, tensions from abroad have coincided with historic rises of hateful conduct in our communities and, in some cases, on our campuses. In Montreal, gunshots were fired at empty Jewish schools, Molotov cocktails ignited at synagogues, and across Canada such antisemitic acts (the Jewish community is currently the most targeted in Canada according to Statistics Canada), and anti-Islamic and anti-Arab hate incidents have similarly been reported. At Concordia, student violence broke out as student supporters of Israel and the hostages, and Palestinian liberation activists clashed.

At the same time, law professors, students, activists and the general academy, in large numbers, are exercising their academic freedom and rights to free speech. In a letter, written to the Prime Minister, over one thousand of them condemn Israel’s “violations of international law” in the war (which include, according to the letter include “genocide, war crimes, apartheid and forced displacement”). Similarly, over seven hundred persons have penned a petition to seek that “context” be considered in explaining the Hamas attacks, and that those expressing such views be immune from “new McCarthyism” in the form of consequences of their speech, including the loss of job offers at notable law firms and denunciation of individuals by government officials (who themselves are protected by Parliamentary privilege).

Some petitions, inspired by the work of Muslim and Jewish law students at University of Ottawa, have been motivated by the laudable and express goal of condemning hate in law schools (over one thousand signatories so far). We have seen many law firms express their condemnation of terror and express solidarity with Israel, with declaring that defending Hamas in public forums is incompatible with their values. Specifically, some have called on Law Deans to take granular stands on hateful speech and discrimination, a matter that most university central policies cover through offices of EDI and respectful learning environments.

Notwithstanding such calls, most Law Deans in Canada do not have the institutional autonomy to make express political statements on behalf of their universities. This is a matter reserved for university presidents and their consultants. As any Law Dean in Canada can attest, we receive daily lobbying from all sides of the conflict, organized and targeted activism from both poles (and everyone in-between), attempting to influence the speech of law schools and their professors.

In response to the barrages of emails, I shared a message of hope with my law school community, and I excerpt it here:

“The academic mission of the University includes the academic freedom of professors to share their expertise, and sometimes this means controversial and difficult information may be discussed inside and outside of classrooms. The freedom is enshrined in collective agreements at the University. At the same time, the University has codified an extensive respectful learning environment policy  and conduct that is tantamount to hate speech, including Islamophobia, antisemitism, anti-Arab racism, anti-2SLGBTQIA+, anti-Indigenous, and anti-BPOC speech and conduct are deeply worrying and must be addressed. Similarly, any threats to security of the person or property will be addressed and cannot be tolerated.

Challenging public speech is difficult terrain. Indeed, it is the terrain of university life. It is more difficult in a world where social media and hot takes engulf us.

The University is making public statements about world events, and it is speaking with one institutional voice and you, students, staff and professors, are free to observe and respond to the announcements as you review the University’s central website.

I, personally, express my deep sadness for anyone that has lost loved ones in the horrific acts of terror, crimes, wars and conflicts abroad and to anyone who has experienced violence and hate speech, and felt excluded and marginalized by events at home and abroad.

The law and the learning of it is at an axiom of difficult and unsafe ideas. We, by necessity of our credentialing, are an institution that traffics in these challenging spaces, but it is our collective duty to navigate them with hospitality, grace and respect for each other, in the face of ideas we gravely and passionately oppose, even when we believe the ideas we are confronting are wrongheaded. This responsibility extends from our ethical responsibilities as aspiring legal professionals and, in any case, as citizens of the University. This duty of respect extends to our civility and tone in our conduct with each other. We are free to disagree passionately, but we are not free to belittle and dehumanize in our conduct and in our reasoning. Sometimes this entails knowing when to pause our debate and to return to the table another day. Sometimes it means debriefing with a trusted friend, colleague or ally…

There is hope in the world we live in. On the occasion of the swearing in of the new Manitoba government, journalist Danielle Da Silva noted that “Manitoba’s newest lawmakers held eagle feathers, wore Métis sashes, spoke their mother tongues and pledged allegiance to King Charles III on holy books that included a Qur’an and a Bible as thick as a phone book while swearing their oaths of office.”

I saw that same sentiment of hope at the swearing in of our new Premier, the Honourable Wab Kinew, who commented: “I’m very proud of the people for embracing a message of unity, positivity for the future and rejecting division.” He also noted “Manitoba now has a Jewish lieutenant-governor, an Anishinaabe premier, a gender-balanced cabinet and a government MLA team that represents many walks of life from so many regions of this great province”.

I witnessed a glimmer of common purpose in a joint statement from the University of Ottawa’s Muslim Law Student Association and Jewish Law Student’s Association. The letter writers recognize the severity of loss for the members of multiple communities, and pleaded that professors, staff and students speak freely but with care and tact due to grievous losses. They note a common humanity unites us, and I completely agree.

Please agree to exercise your freedoms with the responsibility of our shared commitment to justice, liberty, respect, dignity and ethics. We are professionals who will be working with or in partnership with a model of governance committed to the rule of law, the Charter and democracy. We will spend careers entering new collaborations and adversarial disputes that we develop amongst and between colleagues on the same and opposite sides of devastating issues. We cannot demand safety of ideas, after all we are committed to freedom on these lands, but we should demand respect, fairness, equality, hospitality, dignity, grace and professionalism. I know we all have it within ourselves to do so.

Please look after each other.”

These past weeks we have seen the difficult results of echo chamber living. Our students are experiencing these world events in the increasingly hateful algorithmic confines of social media feeds, and our professors are speaking out, as is their labour right, with the power of academic freedom, from their own academic spaces. We all need to prioritize hospitality, dignity and compassion to consider how our speech impacts affected communities, and though such freedoms are notable and worth protecting, exercising them does have impacts – I have witnessed this in the faces of the distressed students that visit my office.

Given the heated circumstances, when a (brave) professor at my law school decided to host a discussion, “International Humanitarian Law in the Israel-Hamas War”, on the last day of classes before reading break, I was worried for our students. I was asked to attend, because the professor wanted to ensure that the rhetoric did not become either Islamophobic or antisemitic.

The law students that attended represented all sides of the conflict, and students from our Master of Human Rights program attended, representing a variety of international perspectives. In the ninety minutes of the discussion, amongst a disparate array of viewpoints, students supporting Gaza’s struggles asked questions, students who supported Israel asked questions, and there is no doubt that every perspective represented was met with subjectively unfulfilling responses – International Humanitarian Law did not resolve the moral concerns in the audience. It did however provide students with a vocabulary for debate. The students left the lecture after ninety minutes of thorough discussion, wanting to engage in more learning and conversation. I know many left the lecture not hearing what they wanted to hear. Their level of civil discourse and debate, on such profoundly divided sides of the conflict, was inspiring.

Whatever the pathway through these difficult times may be, I do not believe institutional pronouncements or social media declarations by individual experts will assist us. I am not sure our respective centralized institutional EDI offices are nimble enough to respond to these crises of hateful speech and conduct in real time. The legal profession is inherently a space of difficult ideas. It is also a community.

Our graduates will be community members, mainly, in the same professions. They may be in these communities, together, for decades. At times they will represent the seemingly indefensible, as an ethical duty of professional responsibility towards a client, as counsel. They will face opposing counsel. Through discussion, dialogue, disagreement, mediation, adjudication, or agreement the matter will resolve. Counsel will need to be able to speak again on future matters. Later, they may find themselves working together. Similar outcomes can be anticipated for our students moving on to the public sector, in-house, corporate, NGO or not for profit sectors. The remainder of them may end up in academia. Our students will need to dialogue across heinous, complex and unsafe ideas. They can do so respectfully, with dignity, without dehumanization, and with an eye to future discourse. We saw this resolve in the joint letter from the Muslim and Jewish Law Students Associations from University of Ottawa (appended below). I observed the same in our students at Robson Hall. We might yet be in good hands.

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