Last week, two prominent Middle Easterners traveled to two North American campuses to deliver speeches mainly about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both met protests. One succeeded in giving the speech; the other did not. Therein hangs a tale.
On Monday, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Concordia University in Montreal to explain why "there is no alternative to winning this war [on terrorism] without delay." But he never spoke at Concordia - indeed, he never made it onto the campus - because a thousand anti-Israel demonstrators staged a mini-riot with the intent of preventing him from speaking; "Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to Montreal. Let's make it clear he's not welcome," read their signs.
The anti-Israel forces physically assaulted the would-be audience. A female professor of religion at Concordia recounted how some of them "aimed their punches at my breasts."
They smashed a plate-glass window and threw objects at the police inside. They hurled furniture at police from a mezzanine. As Toronto's Globe & Mail put it, "By lunchtime, the vestibule of Concordia's main downtown building was littered with paper, upturned chairs, broken furniture and the choking aftereffects of pepper spray."
The police, saying they couldn't assure Netanyahu's safety, canceled the event. To which Wassim Moukahhal, an Arab leader at nearby McGill University, crowed: "The man is a war criminal. We don't want our city and our universities to be the harbor of such a war criminal."
Nor was this the first time Netanyahu has been prevented from speaking on campus. In November 2000, "hundreds of raucous protesters" managed to cancel his appearance at the University of California/Berkeley.
On Thursday, Hanan Ashrawi, the former spokeswoman and colleague of Yasser Arafat, went to Colorado College in Colorado Springs to give a keynote speech at a symposium on "September 11: One Year Later."
Protestors noted that Ashrawi is smack on the side of America's enemies in the War on Terrorism. For example, while the U.S. government formally designates Hamas a terrorist group, Ashrawi states she doesn't "think of Hamas as a terrorist group." Also, she considers Israeli civilians living on the West Bank to be "legitimate . . . targets of Palestinian resistance" - that is, legitimate targets for deadly violence.
The many objections to Ashrawi's being honored at Colorado College centered on her obnoxious presence at an event dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens spoke for many when he said, "It's outrageous to be bringing this woman, who has done so much to divide the Middle East and has applauded terrorism." Both of the state's U.S. senators objected. Rudolph Giuliani added: "I wouldn't have invited her. Cancel it."
But she did speak, without any interference. The protests were completely non-violent, including nothing more than scattered boos, hand-held signs and a rebuttal after the speech (given by this writer).
These two parallel yet contrasting episodes point to several conclusions:
* Both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict are seeking to shift the terms of the debate. The pro-Israel side wants to delegitimize speakers who effectively call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The anti-Israel side wants to block speakers sympathetic to Israel.
* Both incidents point to profound problems in the university, and why Abigail Thernstrom calls it "an island of repression in a sea of freedom." In Colorado, the administration made the morally idiotic choice of honoring an apologist for terrorism. At Concordia, a weak-kneed response let thugs inhibit free speech.
* The incidents also point to the differing faces of pro- and anti-Israel activism, with the former acceptably political and the latter crudely violent. The first resembles the restrained actions of the Israeli armed forces. The second represents a North American face of the suicide bombings.
Or, in the most elemental terms, we see here the contrast between the civilized nature of Israel and its friends versus the raw barbarism of Israel's enemies.
It promises to be a hot political year on campus. How things turn out will depend on which form of activism prevails - the holding of pink sheets of paper with "I disagree" written on them, or the throwing of chairs from balconies.