On Sept. 9, 2002, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to deliver a speech at Concordia University in Montreal. But a violent group of pro-Palestinian protestors shut him down. Next Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of this fracas, marks a low point for free speech in this country.
What stands out in my mind from that day is not the censorship of Mr. Netanyahu, but rather the sheer viciousness of the crowd that lay behind it.
I was an eyewitness to the violence that day. Earlier on, I'd joined the Montreal Gazette editorial board in a meeting with Mr. Netanyahu at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Later, I walked with a female National Post reporter toward the Concordia campus. Both of us had covered anti-globalization protests previously, and assumed the Concordia protestors would be cut from the same cloth – no matter that the ringleaders happened to be Arab instead of white.
But we were wrong. Protestors typically try to ingratiate themselves with the media. Not so the crowd chanting Arabic slogans outside the entrance to Concordia's Hall Building. As soon as they learned we were with the Post – "Zionist-owned" as several described it – they grew hostile. At one point, I tried to penetrate to the middle of the rabble to interview the organizers. As I described in a column published the day after the event, I was rebuffed, and found myself scrambling back through a knot of students kicking at me while screaming "Palestinian checkpoint." Like others, I was sprayed with ketchup from a plastic bottle – a symbol, apparently, of Palestinian blood.
The kicks didn't hurt much. They were designed to provoke me into starting a fistfight or something equally stupid. In a regular setting, many of these people were no doubt decent souls. But they'd been whipped into a frenzy by speakers shrieking denunciations of Israel and everyone who supported it. On the sidelines, I saw groups of Jewish students getting into shoving matches with Arabs. The police in attendance did nothing. A middle-aged Jewish rabbi wearing a yarmulke showed up to see the speech. They roughed him up, too, and sent him scurrying. The one consolation was that much of the fracas had been videotaped – both by police and others. When I interviewed Concordia officials in the aftermath, they assured me they had all the information they needed to identify the main perpetrators.
So what's happened to the students accused of instigating the Netanyahu fracas and sowing violence in its aftermath? In a word, nothing – or close to it.
A grand total of 10 students were charged under Concordia University's internal disciplinary code. Of these, seven either had the charges against them dropped completely or were merely slapped with a few dozen hours of community service.
The remaining three comprise Samer Elatrash, a literature major and well-known pro-Palestinian activist; former Concordia Student Union VP Yves Engler; and Zev Tiefenbach, a Jewish former student active in the Palestinian cause. All three seem to have been little inconvenienced by the proceedings against them.
In February, Mr. Elatrash was found guilty by a panel of students of the four charges laid against him under the school's code of rights and responsibilities. But he appealed, and the case is now in limbo: The university's apparently given up on it because, according to a Concordia administration source, Mr. Elatrash was already a "failed student" at the time of his hearing. That's news to Mr. Elatrash, however. He told me he's registered for three courses this semester – and has plans to return next year on a full-time basis.
As for Messrs. Engler and Tiefenbach, they were both suspended for one semester. Mr. Engler reportedly applied his "suspension" to the summer term, when few students attend classes anyway, and is now back to college as usual. (Earlier this year, he told the Gazette he only intends to take one course – a "special topics" poli-sci survey on anarchism.) Mr. Tiefenbach, the school later found out, was no longer a student at the time of his suspension – so the judgment was moot.
There are also criminal charges pending against various alleged riot organizers and vandals – including a few who aren't Concordia students. But when I contacted Mr. Elatrash earlier this week, he did not seem greatly perturbed. "I have been assured that we will not be hung and drawn regardless of the verdicts," he told me. Given the complete indifference of the cops on September 9, the lax treatment Concordia students have received at the hands of the university, and the delays in criminal prosecution, he's got a right to be confident.
No one is asking for the Sept. 9 ringleaders to be "hung and drawn." But the fact most have gotten away with slaps on the wrist is a scandal. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech and unfettered inquiry. When a group of militant Palestinian sympathizers are able to shut down an Israeli statesman, it signals to students that some viewpoints don't qualify for protection.
By giving the rioters what they deserved, the university might at least have signaled that things would change – and that pro-Israel speech would henceforth receive the same protection as its anti-Israel equivalent. The fact this didn't happen is more than a failure in discipline: It represents a failure in the school's educational mission.