Concerned students patiently filed past security guards on Sept. 12 to attend a discussion titled, “Free Speech, Tolerance and Diversity: where do we go from here?” The discussion meeting was called in response to last Monday’s violence resulting in the cancellation of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled speech.
Originally planned for that evening was a Concordia Student Union-sponsored talk by American professor Norman Finkelstein on the Middle East peace process. Although the CSU executive said it would ignore the administration-imposed moratorium on public activities concerning Israeli-Palestinian relations, it decided canceling the talk would be in the best interest of the student population.
The event was co-chaired by Rector Frederick Lowy and CSU President Sabine Friesinger. Dean of engineering and computer science Nabil Esmail, Dean of the John Molson school of business Jerry Tomberlin, Samer Elatrash, one of the student organizers of Monday’s protest, and Patrick Amar, one of the student organizers of Netanyahu’s scheduled talk, were invited as guest panelists to comment on the incident.
“This event doesn’t serve as a trial for what happened on Monday but more as a forum for discussion of how we can prevent situations like this from happening again,” Friesinger told the crowd at the beginning of the evening. “I hope that we can learn from what happened and I hope that this will be a beginning of talking to each other and understanding each other.”
As each panelist spoke about the importance of all forms of freedom in a democratic society, it was Elatrash, an English literature student, and Amar, a political science student, who stood out and elicited the biggest response from the crowd.
“I think that it was a failure [on the part of the administration] to assess that Palestinian students like myself, whose relatives have been killed under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, are going to sit outside and peacefully protest while Mr. Netanyahu spews his venom,” said Elatrash to roaring applause.
Amar, a Jewish student and former president of Hillel Concordia, had an equally powerful message. “The contempt with which I was looked at on Monday, I don’t wish that on anyone,” he said. “The hatred which filled the streets and the halls of this university should never be present again.
“Nobody going to this school, living in Montreal or in Canada should have to read about the riot police macing somebody in the face or clubbing somebody, just as nobody should have to read about somebody being blocked access to speak his views.”
As the microphone was turned over to the audience, the emphasis of the discussion shifted from university events to a Middle East political debate.
Despite the deep divisions created by Monday’s violence, students in kafiahs and kippahs stood shoulder to shoulder waiting their turn to address the crowd. Many Palestinian students demanded to know why a man they see as a war criminal had been invited to their school. One Latin American / Palestinian woman compared Netanyahu to former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, currently on trial for war crimes, and Pol Pot, the former dictator of Cambodia blamed for the death of over a million citizens during his rule.
There was some solidarity during the evening, as students from all backgrounds demanded accountability. Many openly placed the blame on the shoulders of the administration, specifically Rector Lowy. As more and more students approached the microphone, Lowy was bombarded with questions about security issues.
“We had every reason to believe that there would be protests but we had no reason to believe that there would be the kind of display that we had last Monday,” responded Lowy. “We also did not believe that university students would behave in this fashion.”
The talk ended abruptly, an hour later than planned, after some disruptions in the audience from students raising concerns about a man in the back of the auditorium filming the audience. Many students were still waiting in line to address the crowd. The abrupt ending left many students feeling bitter and frustrated and no better than when they had entered the room hours earlier.