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Could it happen here? Not likely, according to the U of C Palestinian-Canadian Students Society
Photo courtesy Steve Faguy / the Link

Tensions at Concordia

Student groups bring Middle East conflict to school

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With the American election behind us and ethnic tensions on the rise worldwide, it seems worthwhile to take another look at a contentious ethnic issue that affects us right here in Canada. As they say, you have to know where you've been to know where you're going.

The Backstory

Montreal is known throughout Canada, and even the world, for a number of reasons. Among these are the St. Lawrence River, The Montreal Tower, sugar shacks and the only museum in North America entirely dedicated to water. However, in 2002, a particular university in Montreal made headlines for reasons far more grim.

This university was Concordia University, a school renowned for its wide array of popular speakers. It was there, on September 9, 2002, that pandemonium broke lose. Benyamin Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister of Israel, was scheduled to speak to an eager crowd of his fans and opponents alike. A considerable portion of the Palestinian community in Montreal however, had something to say about this, and decided to use violence to express their distaste at Mr. Netanyahu's presence. Property damage and riot police were commonplace for a few hours and the talk was eventually cancelled.

Although no one was seriously injured in those few dark hours, there was one casualty: free speech. Because Mr. Netanyahu was prevented from speaking, one side of an extremely contentious issue was not heard and freedom of speech, a fundamental characteristic of freedom-loving Canadian society, was struck a critical blow.

The New Controversy

Flash forward two years to the present day and a similar problem is once again staring down Concordia University. Earlier this year, the Jewish students' association Hillel proposed to bring Ehud Barak, another former Israeli Prime Minister, to speak at the university. Their proposal was decisively rejected.

This may seem to some like yet another affront to Canada's good friend, freedom of speech, but the university claims that the decision to refuse Barak is a result of security issues, not political motivations.

"The university's primary responsibility is the safety of its staff, students and its faculty, and its neighbors in the surrounding area," said Chris Mota, Coordinator of Media Relations and Special Events at Concordia. "For every speaker that comes through here, a risk assessment is done, it goes through the Montreal Police and the RCMP, and it was recommended to us that we do not host Mr. Barak on campus."

Although her previous answer appears to be impenetrable, Mota did not mention the fact that Michale Tarazi, the legal advisor for Yassir Arafat's radical group--the Palestinian Liberation Organization--was allowed to speak on campus on October 20 of this year.

A Double Standard?

Jason Portnoy, Co-president of Hillel at Concordia, believes that the university's decision to host Tarazi and not Mr. Barak is a sign of a double standard.

"Why is the area securable for one speaker and not for another?" queried Portnoy, later pointing out that the major difference between the two speakers is their affiliation with either the Jews or Palestinians. When confronted with this information however, Mota was able to justify the university's decision.

"You can't call it a double standard. Securing an area for a lawyer and securing it for a former prime minister are two different things entirely," said Mota. "One of the things we need to get clear is that any decision the university makes about hosting guests has nothing to do with the previous ones, and I'm not going to make any assumptions" as to whether the university has taken a side on the Israeli/Palestinian problem.

Steadfast and defendable as this retort may be, there are still those who see the rejection of Barak as a little bit more than convenient in light of past events. Portnoy is one of these people.

"If you can't secure an area like a university, then there's a problem," said Portnoy. "The solution isn't to reject speakers, the solution is to fix the problem and make the area securable."

Shortly after the Montreal police and RCMP deemed the area non-securable, a graduate student at the university who runs a local security firm came forth and claimed that he could do the impossible and make the area secure enough for Mr. Barak to speak on campus. Despite this, at present the university is still refusing to allow the students to bring Barak to Concordia.

The Plot Thickens

Although the university refused to allow Barak to speak on campus, they are more than willing to sponsor the event off campus, claiming that just because an event is not on the university campus does not mean it is not a university-sponsored event. Although he does not want to associate himself with any particular views, Bilal Hamideh, President of the Concordia Muslim Students' Association, said there are those within the Palestinian community who view the Hillel's tenacity in insisting that Barak be hosted on campus as a petty provocation, given what happened when Netanyahu came to speak. Portnoy responded to this with another question.

"Why is it a provocation for one group to have a speaker come and speak on campus and not for another one?" he asked, again pointing out how the university allowed Tarazi to give a speech, and how there was hardly a murmur of dissent at this decision.

Even in the face of all the controversy swirling around this issue, the university's stand is firm that the decision to refuse Barak was motivated by the inability to secure the university. However, Mota said they are working toward being able to secure the university for future high profile events.

"We are trying to get to a point were we could hold a venue with someone like Mr. Barak in the near future," said Mota. "[But at present,] if it is the wisdom of professionals that this is not the appropriate venue, we are going to listen to them."

Why You Should Care

After a horror story like the one that took place in Concordia, many people wonder whether something like that could happen in Calgary. Eman Safadi, a spokesperson for the Palestinian-Canadian Students' Society here in Calgary explained that there is no danger of the Palestinian and Jewish communities being at odds with one another in the foreseeable future.

"There's a mutual respect and understanding between us and Hillel," said Safadi. "We've both had speakers before and both groups are always very professional. We've even invited members of Hillel and the Jewish community to our events and vice versa. I think it's a very different atmosphere here than in Montreal."

Safadi's optimism is a refreshing change and stark contrast to the turmoil and discontent that characterizes the two groups in Montreal.

No matter how well the groups get along here in North America, the battle continues to rage on in the Middle East, and until it is resolved, a dividing line will always linger between Palestinian and Jewish peoples worldwide.

In Calgary at least, despite their differences, Safadi maintains that Concordia is the exception rather than the rule. We can only hope that it remains that way.

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