Toronto, Canada - A low, steady hum of voices consumes the York University student centre as people make their way to classes. Few bother to look up at the row of paintings lining the walls.

There, hanging above the entrance, is the picture that captured headlines earlier this year in what has come to symbolise the latest chapter in Toronto's debate over the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

"This year, when the controversy stirred up and people were saying how it was a symbol of anti-Semitism, I was shocked," said Rawan Habib, 19, a second-year sociology student and member of Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York University. The group that describes itself as "the Palestine-solidarity movement" at the university and believes "Israel is an apartheid state [that] resembles South African apartheid".

"I was genuinely hurt because, to me, [the painting] was a symbol of Palestinian resistance. It was a symbol of Palestinian identity," Habib said, adding that she believes the reason the painting, and the group, is seen as anti-Semitic "is because we're not able to have these discussions; we're not able to break down the misconception that criticism [of Israel] is criticism of a religion."

"They have nothing to do with one another," she added.

The object of contention is a student painting entitled "Palestinian Roots" depicting a young man with a keffiyeh-style scarf, embellished with a Palestinian flag. Above the flag is the outline of pre-1948 Palestine. The young man's hands are crossed behind his back, stones visible in them. He watches as a bulldozer approaches an olive tree in the foreground. The words "justice" and "peace" are written in different languages below the painting.

"My inspiration for this piece is the ongoing issue in Palestine where illegal settlement expansions have become common," the artist, former York business student Ahmad Al Abid, wrote in a post explaining the piece. "These expansions come at the expense of uprooting century-old olive trees, trees intertwined with the roots of the Palestinian people," he wrote. The artist did not respond to a request from Al Jazeera for comment.

'Hate propaganda'?

The issue came to a head in late January, when Canadian film producer Paul Bronfman gave the university an ultimatum: take the painting down, or he would pull thousands of dollars in yearly film production donations from the school.

"I think if they really cared about the issues of hate propaganda and anti-Semitism they would do the right thing and take the mural down," Bronfman wrote in a post shared by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), a Toronto-based group that publicly complained about the piece in September.

The painting 'falls within the principles of free speech', according to student centre chairwoman, Gayle McFadden [Courtesy of Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York University]

"We are sorry that this piece makes some people feel uncomfortable, but it's important to identify that although the artwork may be provocative, it falls within the principles of free speech," Gayle McFadden, chair of the student centre at York University, told Al Jazeera.

"It won't be taken down. It was, along with 28 other pieces, just recently adopted into the student centre's permanent collection, so it's staying up," McFadden said.

Avi Benlolo, the FSWC director, told Al Jazeera in an email that the painting is a "propaganda piece" that "is a symbol of the ongoing campaign targeting Jewish and pro-Israel students at York".

"Jewish and pro-Israel students are shouted down at every step, faced bias in the student newspaper and by student leadership. [They] face threats and intimidation and are afraid to wear symbols of their faith on campus," Benlolo added.

Meanwhile, Robert Lantos, another prominent Canadian film producer, accused York University of going "from an academic institution into an incubator of hate and violence against the Jewish people".

In an open letter posted on the FSWC website, Lantos called on Mamdouh Shoukri, president and vice chancellor at York University, to take the painting down. "Sweep Jew hatred to the gutter, where it belongs," Lantos had written.

Janice Walls, the university's director of media relations, said authority over the painting falls to the York University student centre, which is a separate entity from the university.

"It is clear that the subject of the artwork is offensive to some individuals and groups, particularly Jewish members of our community," Walls said, adding that the university requested that the student centre executive "would establish procedures for hearing and resolving complaints from students about their shared space".

The school will also establish a president's advisory committee on inclusion to look at ways to encourage inclusive debates, she said.

Curbing freedom of speech

Many of the students and faculty at York view this issue through the lens of free speech.

John Greyson, a York University film professor, was one of 100 current and former faculty members who signed a statement in support of freedom of expression at the university in light of the controversy over the painting.


READ MORE: Canada jumps on the ani-BDS bandwagon 


"We have a long tradition of free speech, a long tradition of activism in support of Palestine, and a long tradition of Jewish and non-Jewish students and faculty arguing around human rights," Greyson told Al Jazeera. "They don't seem to like that, so these are techniques for trying to shut down dialogue, trying to shut down debate.

"There's continually the will to silence on the part of people who don't like any form of criticism of Israel to happen."

Pink Floyd member Roger Waters, a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, even waded into the issue, applauding students and faculty for "standing up to [Bronfman's] bullying tactics".

"Happily, York University students and faculty members seem to recognise that protest is OK, and that freedom of speech is a fundamental right and not for sale to the likes of you," Waters had written in an open letter to the university.

Pressure on Palestine organising

The "Palestinian Roots" painting was one of more than two dozen pieces chosen by a jury in 2013 to highlight student artists, McFadden explained.

Habib, the sociology student, said the painting controversy highlights the pressure Palestine solidarity activists are under on university campuses.

"They're trying to incite fear in the hope that it will stop us, that it will hinder our success, that it will make us think that maybe this is becoming too dangerous, [and] maybe we should stop," she said.

But the attacks only make organisers want to do more, she added.

York will host four events from March 21-24 during Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of lectures, film screenings and other events that bring attention to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The annual event first began in Toronto in 2005.

"People keep coming out; people do want to know more," Habib said. "Because the [Israeli] occupation continues to exist, people continue to want to resist."

Source: Al Jazeera