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

Defusing the tensions at Concordia

If Netanyahu had been invited as part of a lecture-dialogue series, the context of the event would have been changed

Frank Chalk is a history professor at Concordia University.

The Montreal Gazette - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Concordia University students used vigilante action and mob justice to prevent former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on Sept. 9. The Hall building marauders consciously cast aside non-violent civil disobedience to engage in violent criminal behaviour. As for those who blocked entrances, they should study civil disobedience and when it is justified by comparing the right of assembly and freedom of speech in contemporary Canada with its denial in colonial India, apartheid South Africa and the segregated American South. Peaceful picketing and leafleting is one thing; riotous conduct is another.

The pro-Palestinian perpetrators of violence committed a serious strategic error. By their aggressive actions, they advanced Netanyahu's campaign to regain leadership of Israel's Likud party and the prime ministership. By denying the right of free speech at Concordia, they called into question their commitment to democracy and human rights, undermining their cause. And by refusing to engage in lawful, peaceful protest, they added to perception that there are no pragmatic and enlightened Arab and Palestinian groups with which advocates of peace can co-operate.

Let me suggest a different future path for Concordia to address its passionate interest in building a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Middle East. If we want to encourage an end to the killing of civilians, jobs and dignity for the people of Israel and Palestine, a state for Palestinians as well as a state for Jews, and the elimination of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a potential source of yet another major regional war or more acts of terror in North America, why not start at Concordia to engage in peaceful, mutually respectful dialogue? Let us sit together and seek ways out of this endless morass, confronting the contemporary reality of suicide bombers dispatched to advance the Palestinian cause, prisoners tortured by Israel to uncover bomb factories, a Jewish state in the Middle East portrayed as an insult to Arab dignity and those who deny the very existence of a Palestinian people. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators came very close to reaching a historic agreement opening the door to a better future. Incremental progress toward peace and dignity for the people of Israel and the occupied territories is possible. Can we demonstrate that there is still enough good will to restore sanity on both sides? I think that, at Concordia, we have the resources to do so.

The Jewish students who agreed to sponsor Netanyahu's speech made a mistake. 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 toward constructive efforts for peaceful debate on the Middle East, was flawed.

We don't need any more "victories" for either side like Sept. 9's. We need responsible policies and dialogue about satisfying the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians to emulate the state of Israel in creating their own state while respecting the right of Israel to exist securely as a Jewish state.

Had Netanyahu been invited as part of a lecture-dialogue series co-sponsored by Jewish and Palestinian groups - a series featuring a broad range of Israeli and Palestinian speakers - the whole context of the event would have been changed. Tensions would have been defused, and the university would have fulfilled an important part of its educational mission. Concordia would have shown its true face - the face of a diverse university that accepted Jewish students in large numbers when other universities set low quotas on their enrolment, the face of a university whose numerous Middle Eastern graduates will some day go on to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the region, the face of a university that refused to deal out facile excuses to prevent Netanyahu from speaking in order to avoid a black eye, the face of a university that has always been open to Montrealers and that has worked hard to improve their lives.