Pro-Palestinian conference Held at University of Toronto

January 2004

A contentious pro-Palestinian student conference went ahead calmly Sunday, a week after the University of Toronto cancelled it over concerns those with dissenting views were being excluded.

About 60 students, many draped in the traditional black-and-white keffiyeh scarf, showed up to attend a daylong workshop series aimed at planning pro-Palestinian events over the next six months.

Three uniformed Toronto police officers stood conspicuously in the meeting room, but there wasn't so much as a flag-waving in protest late Sunday morning as participants filed in.

School officials had initially banned the conference after learning the Al-Awda student group required participants to agree to a strongly-worded "basis of unity" pact.

"Some of the basis of unity tenets are not in accordance with university policy because they exclude different views," university spokeswoman Jane Stirling said Sunday.

The pact called Israel a "racist, apartheid state," rejected a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict and supported the right of Palestinians to "resist Israeli apartheid and colonialism by the means of their choosing." The event was allowed to proceed Sunday after conference organizers met university officials and worked out a compromise to allow dissenting observers. Student leader Hazem Jamjoum opened the meeting with a practised address, saying organizers never meant to exclude those with differing views. He also rejected accusations that organizers condoned violence.

"We actually didn't mean to provoke anyone," said Mr. Jamjoum.

"Here we're talking about the right [to resist], let's keep that clear. Nobody's condoning the killing of civilians."

However, his speech failed to sway some observers who questioned the conference's guiding basis of unity document.

"It seems to justify anything, including attacks on civilians," said Simon Lightstone, a member of the Jewish campus group Hillel.

"The issue is not just about organizing a conference, it's about human rights."

B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group, issued a release Friday blasting the conference and the university's decision to allow it to proceed.

But ultimately, most who turned out to the event were supportive of the students' rights to push on with the workshops.

The prevailing calm contrasted the turmoil that has erupted at other Canadian campuses as they struggle to address this deeply emotional issue.

Notably, Montreal's Concordia University was rocked by wild protests in September 2002 ahead of scheduled remarks by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The protesters occupied a campus building, clashed with police and broke windows. Mr. Netanyahu was never in the building, and his speech was cancelled because of security concerns.

The protests made international headlines and touched off months of tensions between Jewish and pro-Palestinian groups on campus.