«« TERRORISME - conflit israélo-palestinien

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

Battle for freedom of speech

Years of benign neglect led to this week's debacle at Concordia

GAZETTE Thursday, September 12, 2002

The violent suppression of freedom of expression at Concordia University on Monday directly reflects the resort to force, intimidation and terrorism that has plagued the Middle East for many years.

Flying in the face of the basic respect for open discourse that a true university is supposed to represent, the violent crowd prevented Israel's former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on campus. If not powerfully and clearly addressed over time, this act will register the breakdown of academic freedom at a major Canadian institution of higher learning.

I am proud to have taught for 33 years at Concordia, a school that has well served Montreal's multi-ethnic and multi-religious community. Rector Frederick Lowy and his administration have done remarkable work in building Concordia into a modern, dynamic university of high academic standards.

But I have also watched closely as pro-Palestinian student activism has become increasingly aggressive and violent. Under the cover of freedom of expression and human rights, and using techniques of propaganda and intimidation often involving expressions of outright anti-Semitism, this exclusionary activism created a noxious atmosphere on campus.

In announcing that riot police canceled Netanyahu's lecture, Lowy said that the people in the lecture hall, trapped because the police feared violence if they left, were the real, principled defenders of academic freedom.

But the fact was that Netanyahu did not speak, that "they" had succeeded once again (as happened two years ago at Berkeley with Netanyahu) in violently closing down a university. Outside, the propagators of what the left-wing ideologist Herbert Marcuse used to call "negative tolerance" cheered - they knew they had "won."

Will those who used violence to get their way, who broke windows and attacked people, be apprehended and tried? Will the university charge known student hooligans? Lowy has announced that perpetrators of violence will be tracked down and expelled if warranted; and he has decreed a moratorium on public Middle East-related events.

But will a blue-ribbon panel be set up to examine the administration's own performance in the debacle? Will the Montreal police's woefully inadequate performance, and that of city government, be investigated? And should Concordia students innocent of responsibility for the debacle be denied free speech?

I am a historian, and I have studied this kind of thing before. Something like it initiated the end of Weimar in Germany and the onset of Mussolini's Italy. Relatively free universities were shattered in Russia under the Bolsheviks, in Iraq and Egypt with the onset of rule by nationalist colonels, and in Iran after the shah was deposed. It starts by "idealistic" youth in love with violence preventing the "wrong" people from speaking. Then curriculums are revised to conform with the new dominant orthodoxy. Eventually, the non-right-thinking faculty are purged.

Can the destruction of academic freedom and free speech happen here? Has it already begun? What happened this week at Concordia cannot be swept under the rug. It did not begin this week and could have succeeded only because the way was paved by years of benign neglect, which saw freedom of expression progressively limited and devalued (often, paradoxically, in the name of such freedom).

We can only win this battle if today's terror at Concordia is redeemed by an administration, faculty and student body committed to an active policy of enforcing mutual standards and respect, and to ensuring true academic freedom and due process. Lowy has publicly committed himself to such a course, and the university and wider community wish him well and will observe his actions closely.

Importantly, Benjamin Netanyahu should receive an apology from the university and student government and should be invited to address the university at a later date of his choosing. Anything short of this is giving in to intimidation and will inevitably degrade the high standing of Concordia that so many of us have worked to achieve. Not to act decisively now will be a dreadful, and portentous, victory - let us call a spade a spade - for fascism.

- Frederick Krantz is a professor in the department of history at Concordia University.