Shortly before the High Holy days, former first lady Sara Netanyahu was overheard complaining that if Israel didn't take her husband Benjamin back as premier, the couple could move abroad, in which case, she added, "the country can burn." But when Bibi subsequently popped into Montreal on September 9, it wasn't Israel that erupted, but the main foyer of the downtown headquarters of Concordia University, where the erstwhile prime minister had been scheduled to talk. Here, at a university that reputedly boasts the largest population of Palestinian students in North America - as many as 4,000, out of 28,000 students - a mob that had gained entry through an unlocked side door bypassed 160 campus security personnel and Montreal police and convened an impromptu "Palestinian checkpoint" at the entrance to the auditorium reserved for Netanyahu and some 650 guests. Those not yet ensconced within found themselves forced to run a gauntlet of physical and verbal abuse. Dr. Stephen Scheinberg, a former chairman of Concordia's history department and now national chair of the B'nai B'rith League of Human Rights, told The Report he saw protesters kick 73-year-old Holocaust survivor Tom Hecht, the Czech-born chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee Quebec Branch, squarely in the groin. Among other notables kicked, punched or spat upon were Prof. Norma Joseph, who teaches in Concordia's Canadian-Jewish studies program, her husband, Rabbi Howard S. Joseph, spiritual leader of the city's oldest congregation, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, and Rabbi Mordechai Zeitz, of Congregation Beth Tikvah in the suburb of Dollard Des Ormeaux. "I felt like I was looking at fascism in the face," says Scheinberg.
Yoni Petel, president of Concordia's Hillel Jewish Student Union and one of the organizers of the Netanyahu appearance, says the mob - estimated at between 200 and 500 Muslim and Palestinian students and members and supporters of the Concordia Student Union - chanted "Kill the Zionists" as they pummeled ticket-holders. "And in the street," Petel reported, "people heard cries of 'Itbah al Yahud!' (Kill the Jews!)." Police put an end to the spectacle only after protesters began kicking in the plate-glass windows separating the building's lower foyer entrance from the seething stretch of boulevard out front. Five people were arrested and were released on bond, pending court hearings; two were students, one a vice president of the CSU.
The tear gas and pepper spray fumes dissipated quickly. But the same cannot be said for the fear, rancor and dismay that has gripped Concordia since the outbreak of the second intifada. In the last two years, anti-Israel incidents have included:
* The publication of a student handbook containing virulently anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda and caricatures.
* Anti-Israel graffiti spray-painted by two Concordia students, one of whom, Laith Marouf, the son of a Syrian attache to a United Nations office in Montreal, allegedly threatened to kill the campus guards who caught him. Both students were afforded paid legal assistance by the CSU, but were ultimately expelled.
* The creation of a website by the Students Association for Muslim Awareness that condoned suicide bombings in Israel and the attacks on New York and Washington, and offered links to Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic sites and groups (the offending links were subsequently removed).
* A pattern of verbal abuse and physical threats directed, in and near the university, against discernibly Jewish students.
* The circulation by the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) of a spurious article accusing Israel of developing an ethnic bioweapon designed to kill Arabs while preserving Jewish lives.
* The use of CSU funds in September, 2001, to help the SPHR stage an off-campus rally against "Israeli colonialism."
The university's rector, Fred Lowy (who like Concordia's provost, Jack Lightstone, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Martin Singer and many other high-ranking administrators and faculty members, is Jewish), responded to the riot against Netanyahu with a moratorium on Mideast-related activities. Consequently, a talk scheduled for the next day by the CSU, as part of the students' orientation festival, by Norman G. Finkelstein, known as the "enfant terrible of Holocaust studies" (his book, "The Holocaust Industry," accuses American Jewish elites of extorting billions of dollars in reparations from European countries) and a persistent debunker of Zionist myths, was promptly canceled.
Led by the SPHR, campus-based Arab student organizations (which include the Concordia Muslim Students Association, the Syrian Students Association and the Arab Students Association) have greeted the temporary ban with outright derision. Indeed, in the days immediately following the riot, the group continued to display anti-Israeli materials within the same foyer where the riot occurred. .... Only when the university's board of governors met later that day to empower Lowy with the right to impose summary suspensions and initiate expulsions did these groups begin to remove their displays.
Lowy's moratorium has garnered widespread derision within the Jewish community as well. Jewish groups contend that Jewish students have never resorted to violence, despite the lengthy procession of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and Holocaust-denying speakers appearing at Concordia, paid for with student fees collected by the left-wing student union. Petel, for one, denounced the moratorium as "cowardly," and faulted it for "putting the victims of the violent acts on the same footing as those who perpetrated those acts."
Worse, a perception of Jewish culpability in the violence has begun to permeate op-eds and letters-to-the-editor in the local media. Mike Boon, a Montreal Gazette columnist, implied that Netanyahu's arrival was perhaps a deliberate ploy to provoke excesses that would result in a campus-wide clampdown on anti-Israel dissent.
Lowy has lowered the boom too late, in any case, to rescue Concordia from its burgeoning reputation in Jewish circles as a hotbed of unbridled radicalism. Two years of incessant anti-Israeli activities have saddled the school with the nickname of "Gaza U." Bar Ilan University political scientist Gerald Steinberg, who gave a seminar there last year, calls it "the most outrageously anti-Israeli campus in Canada, and perhaps North America."
Concordia came into being in 1974 with the merger of two disparate colleges, Sir George Williams University, situated downtown less than a dozen short city blocks from McGill University, and Loyola College, an English-speaking offshoot of the Jesuit College Sainte-Marie, about a half-hour from the downtown campus. Sir George had found its niche as a school for older students, most of whom worked during the day and looked to its downtown night-time programs for a recognized degree. But as Linda Frum observed in her 1987 "Guide to Canadian Universities," the political climate at Concordia has traditionally been "off-the-map left," possibly because those students not consumed by completing their course work found a political vacuum they could fill with their own agendas.
Concordia lays claim to an almost singular history of protest-inspired pandemonium. Montrealers still recall the notorious "computer riot" of 1969, when 97 mostly black students, one of whom went on to become a member of the Canadian Senate, tossed more than $ 2 million in hardware from the ninth story of the main Hall Building into the street below as a protest against alleged anti-black racism by faculty. In 1992, an embittered engineering professor, Valery Fabrikant, a Russian Jewish emigre, went on a shooting rampage, leaving four former colleagues dead. Last year, a gaggle of Concordia students was arrested at the anti-globalization protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. (The university rescheduled exams to permit them to participate in the demonstrations.)
The anti-Israel and anti-Jewish jihad at Concordia is a more recent, but also more pervasive, phenomenon. Since the election of a far-left coterie two years ago by less than 10 percent of the university's eligible voters, the Concordia Student Union has functioned as an unabashed front for the SPHR, using university funds to foster an anti-Israel crusade that often crosses the line into anti-Semitism, say Jewish groups.
Within days of last year's attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, for instance, the CSU published a student handbook called "Uprising." An odd mix of poetry, agitprop and practical advice, it extolled the intifada, accused Zionists of controlling the Canadian press, and urged students to overturn the capitalist system. The handbook also featured one cartoon depicting the Israeli military as a drooling bird of prey circling around a tiny baby, and another of airplanes flying into a building filled with Israeli "men in black."
There has been a dramatic increase in anti-Israeli campus activism throughout North America recently, yet many Jewish students and some faculty members at Concordia believe their predicament is more dire than that of their U.S. counterparts. Even the American Chronicle of Higher Education has taken notice, publishing follow-up reports to its February 22 article on how Middle East tensions have fueled strife among Montreal's Jewish and Islamic communities.
The unusually close ties between the CSU and the SPHR first came to the fore about two years ago, when the student union put forward a resolution urging Canada to cut ties with Israel. Although the CSU had claimed to be neutral, Jewish organizations (one of which, Hillel, had been rebuked by the CSU for publishing a pamphlet with an opinion piece casting doubt on the concept of Palestinian statehood), were quick to notice the consistently pro-Palestinian affinities of its executives, some of whom took up active membership in the SPHR. Jewish students boycotted the vote, which failed because the CSU could not muster the necessary quorum.
As anti-Israeli posturing grew more aggressive - with walls throughout the university plastered with posters claiming Israeli genocide and banners equating the Star of David with the swastika - Concordia became more determined, in its defense of the free exchange of ideas, not to intervene. "Intimidation is a subjective feeling," Lowy declared almost a year ago, "and we had no reason to believe there was large-scale intimidation."
Some Arab students interpreted this as license to push the envelope yet further, with threats of violence commonplace - one pro-Palestinian agitator reportedly cornered a kippah-wearing student and informed him, "If this were the Middle East, I would kill you!"
"It's not a question of free speech," Scheinberg told university administrators as he witnessed matters on campus growing alarmingly out of hand. "There is no level playing field," he declared. "The coalition between the CSU and the SPHR negated that."
While Jewish groups like B'nai Brith Canada have responded with a flurry of press releases, some Jewish students at Concordia have become so disheartened they have either transferred out or, in some cases, simply refused to return to their studies. Hillel's Petel, who sports a pin of the Revisionist Betar movement on his lapel, says he is urging Jewish students to wear IDF-issue fatigues and caps. "These guys aren't heroes," he told The Report, "they are bullies, and if they feel they may encounter real opposition, my guess is they will back off."
Since the riot, however, talk of restoring fairness to the playing field has given way to debate over whether there should be any place at a Canadian university for the kind of rough-and-tumble rugby imported wholesale from the Middle East.
Understandably, both Arabs and Jews have sought to extract a measure of victory from the Netanyahu-related events. Arab students have expressed satisfaction with having forced the cancelation of a talk delivered by a man they regard as a "war criminal." Some Jewish faculty members and students, meanwhile, have taken their cue from Netanyahu's stated belief that the behavior manifested by anti-Israeli groups that day brought home to an otherwise insular and disaffected public the unreasoning extremism Israelis face every day.
For Concordia historian Frank Chalk, however, there is enough blame left all around to share. "Concordia suffered a terrible injury that day," Chalk told The Report. "I think the combined behavior of those who invited Netanyahu at this time, and those who sought to stop him from speaking out, put Fred Lowy in an impossible situation... trapped between the twin goals of honoring the right to freedom of speech and avoiding the disaster that would result from a riotous confrontation in the streets over Netanyahu's right to speak here."
B'nai Brith Canada, meanwhile, has called upon the government of Quebec to conduct an independent investigation into the events leading up to the riot. Ironically, Bernard Landry, the staunchly separatist provincial premiere, has promised to look into that request. He has also announced that the kind of anti-Zionism witnessed at Concordia is indiscernible from anti-Semitism, and has no place in Quebec.
Fine rhetoric, but no guarantee against a recurrence.