MONTREAL - For anyone worried about the "right to dissent" in the post-Sept. 11 era, I offer, in rebuttal, Concordia University. The school is already well known to Canadians thanks to its student union, which last year published a handbook demonizing Israel and glorifying Palestinian violence. Yesterday, Concordia won new notoriety: An Arabist rabble shut down a scheduled speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister. The protests were so violent the police had to spray tear gas, causing the university's main building to be evacuated.
Not that the cops seemed to care much about whether the speech went on or not. Bizarrely, the row of helmeted policemen stood to one side and let the protesters control access to the Hall building, where the speech was supposed to take place. At one point, Laith Marouf, a Syrian who was expelled from Concordia last year after defacing a school building with pro-Palestinian graffiti, climbed on top of a police van and used it as his pulpit. I pointed out the irony to a nearby cop, but he just shrugged.
With no speech to cover, I drifted among the protesters. Most of them had no idea they'd prevailed, and delivered statements to me in the vein of "as we speak, a blood-soaked war criminal is inside that building spewing his racist propaganda." When I told them of the cancellation, they were ecstatic.
At his press conference, Mr. Netanyahu put a brave face on all of this. He said the protesters had undermined their own cause because they'd showcased the intolerance, hatred and censorship that are the calling cards of Yasser and Saddam. Some reporters in the room rolled their eyes -- particularly the francophones, many of whom imagine the Palestinians to be kindred political spirits.
But there was a lot of truth in Mr. Netanyahu's words. Concordia University is the centre of militant Arabism in Canada, and it has recently seen a steady stream of extremists parade through its halls. (Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, a prominent university group that organizes demonstrations, has circulated articles by Holocaust deniers alleging Israel is developing an "ethnic bomb" that will kill Arabs but not Jews.) But you never see Jews or anyone else coming to block SPHR from saying its piece. It is only among the school's Arabs -- many of whom, like Marouf, are immigrants from Arab nations where free speech is non-existent and anti-Semitic filth is widespread -- that it is considered acceptable to shut your opponent up by force.
Yesterday's fracas at Concordia was not the Middle East in miniature. I didn't see anyone strapped with mock explosives, and the protesters were careful to avoid burning an Israeli flag (as some protesters did in Toronto earlier this year). But there was still a climate of intimidation. When I tried to approach the Hall building, I was blocked by a crowd of protesters who declared they were creating "a Palestinian checkpoint." Many of the folks in yarmulkes -- including a pair of middle-aged men -- were shoved, kicked, smeared with ketchup meant to symbolize Palestinian blood, and otherwise harassed until they fled.
To the protesters -- well-steeped in the specious propaganda of the Arab world -- all of this was "legitimate resistance."
"Look what the police have done," a thin, friendly Concordia student named Ahmed told me, gesturing dramatically at a pane of smashed glass.
"But the protesters smashed the window," I said.
"Yes," he responded, "Out of frustration. Look at the way they're being treated!"
As we spoke, a group of Jewish students raised an Israeli flag. Almost immediately, a group of men chanting slogans in Arabic took it from them.
"Is that an act of frustration too?" I asked Ahmed, half seriously.
"They have no business taunting us," he said with great solemnity. "It's a provocation."
In some ways, this sort of statement is more dismaying than the violence it excuses. It tells me that the logic of Palestinian victimization is crossing the ocean and taking up residence locally. Which, perhaps, is not surprising: If you can argue that blowing up school buses is a predictable response to the "humiliations" imposed on Palestinians, as many of the talking heads featured on the CBC and in The Toronto Star tell us, why shouldn't censorship in support of the victims be OK too? Shouldn't the blame lie with Mr. Netanyahu, for daring to express his free speech rights and thereby "provoking" those poor Palestinian sympathizers? Sure enough, a reporter at yesterday's press conference raised that very theory. "There are people who feel that holding your event at a place like Concordia University with a history of difficulties ... was like waving a red flag in front of these people," she said. "Perhaps that caused the problem." To my delight, Mr. Netanyahu had no patience for this.The cause of riots, he said, is rioters. The cause of thuggery is thugs. "And if it's true that there is a history of problems at a place like Concordia," he added, "then clean it up."It was the best line of the press conference. I only hope someone from Concordia was there to hear it.
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