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Manifestation à Concordia à l'occasion du passage de Benjamin Nétanyahou

Students find common ground in unlikely place

Concordia's ban on Middle East activities angers factions on both sides of the debate

AARON MATE
vice-president (campaigns) of the Concordia Student Union.
THE GAZETTE Sunday, September 29, 2002

The Sept. 9 protests at Concordia University that forced the cancellation of a planned lecture by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illustrated just how much anger and hatred divide those on both sides of a conflict going on thousands of miles away. Palestinians asserting themselves against the presence of a despised enemy of their people stifle an event organized by their fellow Jewish students as a display of national pride.

Three weeks later, the situation remains satisfactory for no one. The Palestinian students have seen the public debate shift from the plight of their people to their denial of free speech (a shift enthusiastically encouraged by their opponents); the Jewish students have seen their rights to free speech denied at their own school, and some now feel afraid to walk around on campus wearing their kippas and Star of David necklaces.

As a Jewish student opposed to the occupation of Palestine, and an executive member of the student government at Concordia, I have been struggling to find a way to resolve this situation. Unexpectedly, the two sides have found some unlikely common ground in the university's response to the protests.

The administration has imposed a moratorium on all Israel-Palestine related activities: no posters, no lectures, no information booths, effective for at least three months. Between two heated opponents, there has been only one response.

"You don't help a problem by suppressing it," a pro-Palestinian activist said to me as we sat in the school lobby. "This only make things worse." Two hours later, a fellow student in the pro-Israel group agreed. "They're denying our rights to free speech," he said. "You're not going to ease our anger by telling us not to express it." I agreed entirely and, in fact, think they hold import beyond just the issue of free speech.

When confronted with a restrictive force from above, both sides of the debate are able to recognize how neither of their conflicting beliefs or emotions will be reconciled by denying them the right to be heard. That should also apply to how they deal with each other. Just as the administration's concern over the tensions between Jews and Palestinians is understandable, so is the anger that each group feels toward the other.

Having visited the Occupied Territories just a few months ago, I share the outrage against those that carry out and support the occupation of Palestinian land. I can't imagine how insulting it must have been to arrive at your school that Monday morning to come across a sea of riot cops and barricades, all so an extremist leader of this occupation could deliver a lecture inside.

But also aware of the terrible persecution of Jewish people throughout our history, with suffering that still continues with every terrorist attack that Israel endures today, I also share the deep emotional attachment that fellow Jews feel for the country, and can understand why it is so easy to look past all the atrocities committed in our name, particularly when confronted with what we saw at Concordia that day.

But by continuing to let this anger guide our responses to those on the other side, by negating their feelings because we hate their beliefs, we effectively close off any chance of reaching them. As a fellow pro-Palestinian Jew told me a few weeks before the anti-Netanyahu protests, in response to my own anticipation at confronting a man whose beliefs I despise: "Self-defence is one thing," she said, "but you don't stop aggression in this world by bringing more into it. You change the world by bringing in what you want to see it become."

This is particularly true in an environment where our divisions are marked by our backgrounds and ideas, not by any borders and weapons. We might identify with the pain and anguish that our loved ones are suffering in Israel-Palestine, we might agonize over what they're going through, but we need not view ''the other'' here as we would over there.

When our worst threat is the anger that we see projected back toward us, we can do no better than to give up whatever role we play in allowing this anger to persist. There's no surer way of entrenching other people's hatred than by provoking in them the defensive reactions that allow them to close off their conscience from recognizing the humanity that we wish to assert.

The pro-Palestinian students who refused to allow ''the other'' the right to make up their own minds, to hear a point of view, no matter how racist it might be, need to recognize that imposing their anger and outrage will do nothing to convince those who wanted to hear Netanyahu speak. And the pro-Israel students who were angry at being denied their right to hear him, need to consider why others were so angry, so upset by the person they'd come to see.

To consider the other's feelings does not mean to let go of our anger toward what they believe, but only to consider just how we choose to address it. If we can bring ourselves to understand the other's anger, we might realize just how little our own will serve to reach other people just as human as we are.