Protesters on Monday had every right to attempt to block former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on campus.
Universities are meant to provide a forum for open, critical discussion of issues. Mr. Netanyahu is not known for fostering open discussion about the Middle East, but rather promoting one side of the debate with little or no respect for the other.
He has proven in the past that he is opposed to a fair peace process in the Middle East, recently leading the Likud party in a vote against the potential establishment of a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River.
As further evidence of his unwillingness to openly debate the issues, even if the speech had taken place there was to be no question period.
At the same time, it must be said that Monday’s protests added little constructive debate to the situation. The reason for the protest was to speak out against an individual who protesters claim is an instigator of Middle East violence. But by engaging in violence in the streets of Montreal, physically harassing those who would hear Mr. Netanyahu speak, they did nothing but worsen an already deplorable situation. Their actions only served to further aggravate an already tense situation, without resolving any underlying issues.
It is always difficult limiting an individual’s right to free speech. Writing for a newspaper, the ideals of freedom of the press, speech and opinion are incredibly valuable. But there are always judgement calls to be made.
Last year, university administration cancelled a Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights event on the quadrangle at the corner of Guy and de Maisonneuve for security reasons. Yet they allowed Mr. Netanyahu to come and speak at the school, even though his presence prompted a as great, if not greater, security risk.
Some point to the fact that rarely does a university have the opportunity to host a former world leader, but at times it is necessary to put events and issues into context.
There was little evidence that Mr. Netanyahu would enrich the quality of life on campus, and all those involved with the project had knowledge of the tensions that pervaded student life last year. This still simmering tension, as well as the upcoming anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, should have been enough to convince administrative, student, and public officials that bringing Mr. Netanyahu to campus was in poor judgement.
It must be made clear, though, that this feeling applies to all sides of the debate. If a pro-Palestinian group had lobbied the school for space for Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to speak, we most likely would have seen the same result, with the same editorial being written.
At the same time, discussion must still go on. Academics and others willing to engage in a constructive dialogue must continue to be brought to campus in order for individuals to continue to learn, discuss and form opinions on issues which are at once so far away and so close to home.
That is why the administration’s moratorium on public activities concerning Middle East affairs is a poor idea. It is necessary to avoid both extremes. Norman Finklestein, who has actively engaged in criticism of both sides of the Israel-Palestine peace process, is slated to speak at the university this coming Thursday as part of the CSU Orientation Week. Finklestein is precisely the kind of academic who will engage in critical discussion that
the university needs right now.
And he will be answering questions.