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Proposed director of University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program participated in attempted boycott of prominent Jewish legal scholar at academic conference

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Prof. Valentina Azarova supported a boycott of Jewish academic Professor Eugene Kontorovich at an international conference in 2018. (Photo @AustHelmut Twitter)

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The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law continues to deal with allegations that the law school revoked an offer of employment to Dr. Valentina Azarova for the directorship of the law school’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP). As previously reported, Azarova’s academic work displays a strong anti-Israel bias, and allegations have been made that a tax court judge tried to block her appointment. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Azarova was offered the position. Former Trent University president Bonnie Patterson has been hired by U of T to conduct a review of what transpired. Some academics and members of the legal profession have suggested that the decision by the law school not to hire Azarova is an affront to minority groups and is inconsistent with the principles of academic freedom.

Daniel Tsai, a law professor at Ryerson University, wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star on September 30, 2020 entitled “U of T Law School failed minorities in hiring scandal”. Tsai wrote that “Instead of being an academic bastion and a voice for the disenfranchised, U of T law school has failed to represent the diverse voices needed in academic scholarship. The IHRP could have signalled its priority of preserving academic freedom and allowing alternative opinions and discussion to flourish.” Tsai provided no specific reasoning as to how the hiring of Azarova would have allowed “alternative opinions and discussion to flourish” at the law school.

On September 30, 2020, Catherine Morris, Executive Director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LWRC), wrote a letter to Dean Edward Iacobucci of U of T’s Faculty of Law. In the letter, Morris writes that “We note with concern recent allegations that the decision of the hiring committee to hire the respected international human rights scholar Dr. Valentina Azarova was rescinded by the University after a verbal offer and acceptance were made, and after both the University and Dr. Azarova had taken steps to implement the details of that agreement.”

Regarding the UN Basic Principles on the Roles of Lawyers, Morris adds “The Basic Principles are also clear that legal practitioners should be free from intimidation, hindrance, harassment, and other interference in carrying out their advocacy (Article 16).”

In a November 8, 2020 article for legalinsurrection.com, Samantha Mandeles reported that numerous NGO’s and organization across Canada have voiced support for Azarova including the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), Amnesty International, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, as well as Human Rights Watch Canada’s director, Farida Deif. Mandeles reported that “If it seems peculiar that massive ‘human rights’ organizations would weigh in on such a controversy, perhaps an explanation of Azarova’s personal connections with the group—and the IHRP itself—can shed some light on the situation.”

Mandeles further reported that “Azarova is married to Bill Van Esveld—a long-time Middle East-focused official at Human Rights Watch with a history of endorsing false claims and biased reports from a wide variety of anti-Israel sources.” Mandeles also points out that the last head of the IHRP program, Samer Muscati, now works at Human Rights Watch as well.

On September 29, 2020, Deif authored an article on the Human Rights Watch website entitled “A Human Rights Controversy at the University of Toronto”. The article is highly supportive of Azarova and states that the controversy “speaks to the core of what academic freedom means”.

Deif also alerts readers that “the spouse of Dr. Azarova is my colleague at Human Rights Watch”. Therefore, it seems that Human Rights Watch is in an obvious conflict of interest by publicly supporting Azarova with respect to the U of T controversy.

In light of the ongoing discussions about academic freedom and freedom of speech, is Azarova herself committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech? Her own commitment to these values is important in evaluating whether or not it would be appropriate for her to serve as director of the IHRP.

One prominent legal scholar has reported that Azarova sought to have him boycotted at an academic conference.

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Professor Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia. He is the Director of Scalia Law School’s Center for the Middle East and International Law. He has provided testimony several times before the U.S. Congress, and he has appeared on major TV networks including CNN, Fox News, BBC News and MSNBC.

On September 23, 2020, Kontorovich posted on Twitter: “Azarov sought to have me boycotted when I was chosen to speak at an academic conference, presenting a paper she disagreed with. I did speak, she publicly protested my right to do so. A head of an academic unit can’t suppress academic views they disagree with.”

I contacted Professor Kontorovich to discuss his experience at the conference. The conference, “The International Legality of Economic Activity in Occupied Territories”, was hosted by the Asser Institute in the Hague in October 2018.

“In late September 2018, a month before the conference was to be held, I was contacted by the organizers who said ‘a number of participants’ in the conference opposed my inclusion in the program, and claimed that I was beyond the pale of academic discourse (despite being a professor at a major research university with over 30 articles published in peer-reviewed journals and books, major law reviews, and my work being cited by courts in major international law cases),” says Professor Kontorovich. “The organizers said that these disgruntled participants were pressuring them to revoke my invitation, and threatening to boycott the conference themselves if this demand was not granted.”

He notes that “My paper was the only one to be presented at the conference that adopted a sceptical view about the general illegality of business activity in occupied territories. I was also the only Jewish participant. And I was the one they singled out for an attempted boycott”.

Professor of Law Eugene Kontorovich is the Director of the Center for the Middle East and International Law. He is one of the world’s preeminent experts on universal jurisdiction and maritime piracy, as well as international law and the Israel-Arab conflict.

What role did Dr. Azarova play in the attempted boycott?

“Dr. Azorova was not the ringleader of this deplatforming attempt, but she was certainly one of the participants. This became clear when she presented her paper at the conference (which was shortly after I presented mine).” Kontorovich explains that “Before presenting, she got up and formally announced that her ‘participation in the workshop does not constitute an acceptance of the unconditional invitation to Eugene Kontorovich.’ In other words, she was lodging a formal protest at my inclusion. She did not avail herself of the opportunity to demonstrate the supposed flaws in my work through the normal academic means – asking pointed questions about it during my presentation.”

“This was an attempt to silence academic debate and stigmatize academics who do not share her views. I recall reflecting at the time that it was a good thing I had tenure and thick skin; I could only imagine the chilling effect that her conduct could have on less established academics’ research choices,” adds Kontorovich.

With respect to her potential hiring at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, Kontorovich says that “I was surprised when I heard she was being considered for a position as a head of a centre, where she herself would make choices about who would be invited to such conferences. It is hard to imagine that she would do so in anything other than a complete politicized way, contrary to all norms and standards of academic discourse.”

The University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s website states that “Our vision is a law school and legal profession that fully reflect the diversity of our society.” Azarova’s conduct in attempting to boycott a well-respected academic like Professor Kontorovich at an international conference flies in the face of the law school’s stated goal of reflecting the diversity of our society.

Any faculty member in a leadership position at a publicly-funded law school in Canada must be prepared to engage with a variety of viewpoints and allow students to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints.

It appears that the law school will be better served in the long-term by hiring a director of the International Human Rights Program who actively seeks to promote academic freedom and diversity of opinion.

Jonathan Mackenzie is a lawyer in Toronto. He has a B.A. in Political Science (with Distinction) from York University and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School. Jonathan previously served as a staff writer for Osgoode Hall’s Obiter Dicta Student Newspaper.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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