The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law has become embroiled in controversy following a decision by the dean of the prestigious law school to rescind an offer of directorship to prominent international academic Valentina Azarova because of her past work exposing Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine.
Several national and international scholars wrote to the university to express their objection to its decision, according to the Star, a local paper. Azarova was expected to take up the prestigious position of director at the International Human Rights Program (IHRP). The Star, which has seen the correspondence between the university and faculty staff, said that pressure from a sitting judge, presumed to be pro-Israeli, who is also a major donor to the faculty, led to the offer being rescinded.
A number of staff at the university have resigned in protest. Audrey Macklin, who chaired the faculty advisory committee, and was part of the selection panel that unanimously found Azarova the best candidate for the job, quit from the board last week.
In a letter to the Star, the university denied Azarova was offered the position saying that “no offer of employment was made to any candidate, and therefore, no offer was revoked.” But a letter to Edward Iacobucci, dean of the law school from two previous directors of IHRP, contradicts the university’s assertion that no offer of employment was made.
“Azarova — the hiring committee’s top candidate — accepted the faculty’s offer in mid-August,” wrote Carmen Cheung and the most recent director, Samer Muscati. “The Faculty of Law put Dr. Azarova in touch with immigration counsel to advise her on her options for securing a permit to work in Canada, and Dr. Azarova began planning to move with her partner from Germany to Toronto, where her stepchildren reside.”
A second faculty member, Trudo Lemmens, also resigned in protest. “As a faculty member of an academic institution which values academic freedom and human rights issues, I have no clear understanding of why the appointment didn’t take place” Lemmens is reported saying in the Star before announcing his decision to quit. “That’s why I joined colleagues in resigning because I’m not in a position to firmly defend the process and the decision. This is particularly important because I so strongly believe in the value of the program and the integrity of the program.”
Academics who had worked with Azarova’s defended her stance regarding Israel, while expressing concerns over the efforts to silence critics of the occupying state. “Her criticism of Israel is extremely legitimate within Israel,” Itamar Mann, associate professor, the University of Haifa Faculty of Law, who worked closely with Azarova said. “It’s a criticism that I share. It’s a criticism of long-standing human rights violations of international law, primarily through the project of settlements which is unquestionably illegal and that’s the kind of majority position around the world. It’s not an exotic position to take at all.”
“Even from the perspective of people who imagine themselves as helping defend or support Israel, I think this would be a grave mistake.”
“Being able to debate is an essential part of democracy.”
Azarova has taught law and international law and has worked to establish human rights enforcement mechanisms in Europe and beyond and has consulted for United Nations fact-finding missions, among other accomplishments.