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September 26, 2002 Extreme behaviour hurts the cause, says the history professor


Opinion by Dr. Frank Chalk,
Department of History

The approach taken at Concordia University by some students and student groups to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on Sept. 9 smacked of vigilante action and mob justice.

The protesters forced me and other advocates of negotiating with the Palestinians a two-state solution and withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank and Gaza to defend the right to speak at Concordia of a politician whose policies we abhor.

It is good to see students at Concordia involved in contemporary political issues. A number of the students who protested Netanyahu's talk respected the principles of peaceful protest and were seen restraining their colleagues from physical assaults.

But Concordia students should be aware that a few among them take only one or two courses a year so they can participate in student organizations, earn salaries for their campus activities, and spread their views. For these individuals, disruption of education at Concordia and the commercial fabric of the city of Montreal is just fine. They don't believe in formal education — it just reinforces the global capitalist system.

These students reject dialogue on political issues and refuse to tolerate views different from their own. They use open forums to divert attention from the advertised subject to their own shrill agenda. Theirs is the path of disruptions, intimidation, polarization and violence. They trample on the Latin origin of the word "university," universitas, meaning the whole world, by seeking to shrink the focus of the life of the university to their own narrow view of the top issue of the moment.

In passing legislation permitting student associations to gain accreditation, Quebec clearly defined a student association as “an organization whose main purposes are to represent students or student associations, and to promote their interests, particularly respecting teaching, educational methods, student services, and the administration of the educational institution.”

Are Concordia students aware that under the bylaws of the Concordia Student Union any student at Concordia interested in determining if spending by the Student Union respects these priorities has the right during normal office hours to visit the office of the Student Union and request the details regarding “receipts and disbursements of the Student Union and the matters to which each of them relates, as well as details of its financial transactions and its credits and liabilities”?

With a former Student Union vice-president accused of having defrauded the CSU of $196,000, and the decision of the CSU to pay the legal expenses of students and non-students arrested during the riotous behaviour of September 9, this may be an important period for careful scrutiny of the books.

Restoring orderly discourse

Where do we go from here? What can we do at Concordia to restore the civility and orderly discourse which befits a university?

The intruders committed a serious strategic error. By their aggressive actions, they advanced Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign to return to the leadership of Israel's Likud party and to occupy the office of the prime minister. By their denial of the right of free speech at Concordia University, they called into question their own commitment to democracy and human rights. By their blanket assertions that all Zionists are racists and colonialists, they exhibited their own narrow nationalism and its potential prejudices. And by their refusal to engage in peaceful protest within the boundaries of Canadian law they added to the growing number of persons who question the existence of a pragmatic group with whom advocates of peace can co-operate.

I think that the Jewish students who agreed to sponsor Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Concordia on Sept. 9 made a mistake. They obviously did not choose the time of Netanyahu’s visit, but were offered a speaker. Their timing was terrible. Their sense of what was appropriate at the beginning of a new school year, when Concordia needed a period of serious reflection on how to build bridges towards constructive efforts for peaceful debate on the Middle East, was flawed.

In my view, we don’t need any more “victories” for either side like Sept. 9’s. We need to work out guidelines for dialogue assuring civility and mutual respect, and, once that is accomplished, lift the ban on speakers discussing the Middle East.

A positive next step would be a lecture-dialogue series co-sponsored by Jewish and Palestinian groups, a series featuring a broad range of Israeli and Palestinian speakers examining the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians to emulate the State of Israel in creating their own state and of Israelis wishing to ensure the emergence of a Palestinian state that respects the right of Israel to exist securely and to be a Jewish state. A series like that would show the true face of Concordia University.