Conflict spills to Canada

  • Education
  • Sunday, 26 Jan 2003


IT is Canada's mini-Middle East, a university with a diverse student body embroiled in emotional and sometimes violent debate that mirrors the tension thousands of miles away. 

Life at Montreal’s Concordia University downtown campus has been in conflict since a pro-Palestinian movement took over the student government in 2000 despite numbering just a few hundred of the more than 26,000 students. But this year has been particularly tumultuous. 

In September, dozens of Palestinian supporters rioted and forced the cancellation of a campus speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Disciplinary hearings for 12 pro-Palestinian students involved in the unrest started Monday in private, with simultaneous, peaceful demonstrations outside by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups. 

Jewish students complain of being targeted with threats and at least one assault. A few weeks ago, the student government froze the funding and activities of the campus Hillel chapter, which has gone to court seeking to overturn the action. 

Some in the student government, meanwhile, accuse university administrators of taking a pro-Jewish bias to appease Jewish alumni who donate money. 

Hoping to calm the campus, the university has appointed a special adviser to the rector to deal with the situation. 

“Our motto is ‘Real education for the real world’, and I believe that's exactly what happens here – positively and negatively,'' Concordia's communications director, Dennis Murphy, said with an uneasy chuckle. 

Those at the epicentre of Concordia's tension say it all comes down to personal ties to the Middle East. 

“There's a lot of students who are actually from that region,'' said Ralph Lee, a vice president of the Concordia Student Union, the student government. “Some know people who died in suicide bomber attacks. You have Palestinian students who have cousins and brothers and sisters who have been shot and killed by the Israeli army.'' 

Or as Noah Joseph, co-president of Concordia Hillel, put it: “We're a microcosm of the Middle East at Concordia.'' 

Concordia is the most public example of political disputes that have been imported from around the world as the government broadened the immigrant inflow to this nation of 31 million people in recent decades. Many of the more than 200,000 let in each year have come from Asia, the Middle East and Africa after a mainly European influx earlier. 

Canadian Jews say anti-Semitism is on the rise, citing fires and other vandalism at some synagogues and hostility such as comments in December by a Canadian Indian leader, David Ahenakew, that Hitler was trying to prevent Jewish domination. 

Canadian Muslims complain of assaults and other harassment since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

Concordia has almost 2,000 foreign students – about seven percent of the total – and large numbers of Canadians of foreign heritage. No figures are kept for diversity among the Canadian students, but a walk on campus finds a rich mix of cultures and ethnicities. 

The origin of Concordia's welcoming admissions policy casts an ironic hue on current tensions. 

Murphy, the school spokesman, said what is now the downtown Concordia campus opened its doors to Jews turned away by other Montreal universities in the 1930s. Decades later, the same openness brought more Arab-descended students as the university widened its recruitment. 

Middle Eastern-related tensions on campus began to rise about the time of the latest Palestinian uprising in 2000. In student government elections that year, only 1,400 students voted and a leftist, pro-Palestinian group gained control, Murphy said. 

Pro-Palestinian protests occur regularly. A demonstration against Netanyahu's planned speech on Sept. 9 erupted into fighting with police. 

Lee, a Jewish student who is critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, called the speech a provocation by the Jewish community. Murphy and Joseph, the Hillel leader, allege the violence was premeditated. 

Lee said it was “an unfortunate incident, but it's the exception and not the rule. And it's that exception in a strange way that makes Concordia, you know, Concordia.'' 

Joseph, however, said Concordia has become “an incredibly unpleasant environment for Jewish students.'' 

A group called Solidarity with Jews at Risk in Canadian Universities published large ads in major newspapers last month calling for more tolerance on campuses nationwide. 

“The struggle between Israelis and Palestinians has created an atmosphere of intolerance that is pervasive and frightening for many students, especially Jews,'' the ad said.- AP 

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