MONTREAL (Dec. 5)
Add one more anti-Israel incident to the growing list at Montreal’s Concordia University.
Less than two weeks after a moratorium was lifted on Mideast-related events on campus, the Concordia Student Union effectively shut down the university’s Hillel.
The action was taken Monday night at a hastily convened meeting of the student union’s executive. The group said it acted because Hillel was displaying fliers for Mahal 2000, a program where volunteers can spend time helping out on Israeli army bases.
In response, the campus Hillel said it would sue the student union to have its status reinstated.
The strongly pro-Palestinian CSU objected to Hillel’s promotion of the Israeli military, even though Mahal does not advocate a military role for students.
Palestinian activist Samir Elatrash, founder of the Society for Palestinian Human Rights, claimed the Mahal material supported "a military brigade set specifically to guard settlements."
Hillel Montreal’s president, Ariela Cotler, said the materials were placed on the group’s informational table inside a university building by a former Hillel member and student activist.
But no matter who placed it there, she said, "the point is that Mahal is a voluntary organization, not a military one. Nothing illegal was done by displaying the fliers."
The incident comes three months after anti-Israel rioters forced the cancellation of a speech on campus by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The moratorium on Mideast events was instituted after the riot.
Jewish students on campus have reported being verbally and physically intimidated, and one was beaten up a week after the abortive Netanyahu speech.
Those incidents followed pro-Palestinian rallies when the intifada began in fall 2000 that featured placards proclaiming "Death to the Jews" and marchers chanting anti-Zionist slogans.
The CSU also got into hot water over its handbook for the 2001/2002 academic year, which was titled "Uprising" and featured the image of what appeared to be a Muslim woman and the word "revolution."
The international headquarters of Hillel asked Hillels around the world to light a Chanukah candle Thursday night in solidarity with the Concordia branch.
Some 400 Hillel supporters rallied on the Concordia campus Thursday evening to protest the CSU’s action.
"We live in a democratic society whose true test is to allow everybody an opportunity to express their point of view," said journalism student Tamar Kopel, 22. "They tried to silence us once at the Netanyahu event and now they’re trying to again, by taking away our only Jewish organization at the university."
Dennis Murphy, Concordia’s communications director, attended the rally.
"I don’t think any action aimed at influencing any segment of the university population is intelligent, no mateter which organization it comes from," he told JTA. "It’s both unintelligent and irresponsible."
The administration is checking the CSU’s claims about the legality of the Mahal flyer, he said, and will decide what steps to take once its investigation is finished.
Since the CSU is funded by the government and not the university, however, it’s not clear what steps the university can take against the CSU if it decides the student union acted incorrectly.
Repeated attempts to reach the CSU’s main office and the CSU president were unsuccessful.
But Elatrash, the pro-Palestinian activist who brought the complaint against Mahal, showed up to heckle at the Jewish rally Thursday.
Mahal volunteers help enforce the Israeli army’s curfew on Nablus, build settlements throughout the West Bank and even, he claimed, took part in the Israeli army’s 1982 siege of Beirut during the Lebanon War.
"Mahal is recruiting for war crimes," Elatrash told JTA.
Hillel supporters dismissed the characterization as ridiculous.
Adam Brelow, a medical student at McGill University who came to show solidarity with the Concordia Hillel, went on a similar volunteer program last year.
His time was spent at an army base near Jerusalem — inside Israel’s pre-1967 border — cleaning, doing laundry for the soldiers and performing other menial tasks, he said.
Cotler said she was very disturbed by the CSU action against Hillel.
"We cannot let this go on, and Concordia cannot let this go on, either," Cotler said. "I have no doubt this is an attempt to shut down Israel’s voice in this community, starting with Hillel and expanding from there."
She also questioned the circumstances surrounding the meeting of the CSU executive, where the 8-1 vote was taken.
"The CSU’s bylaws state that the board must be advised" of a vote "at least five days in advance. They also have an obligation to have a quorum on hand for a vote," she said.
Yet neither procedure was followed, she claimed, adding that the vote was held at the end of the meeting, close to midnight, when many people had left.
Some say the meeting was planned for Monday in order to pass the resolution while the university’s rector, Frederick Lowy, is abroad.
"There was an obvious agenda to disrupt the activities of Hillel on campus," Cotler said. "Their only concept of freedom of expression here is when the Society for Palestinian Human Rights is involved, with the support of the CSU."
One of the three Jews on the CSU cast the sole dissenting vote. Another Jewish member did not attend the meeting, and the third, who is a pro-Palestinian activist, voted in favor.
The CSU ruling revokes Hillel’s "funding and tabling privileges," preventing the organization from holding events on campus or setting up informational tables and displays.
If it wishes to have its rights reinstated, Hillel must apologize in writing and permit an investigation by the university administration.
Cotler said Hillel would submit a legal notice Thursday evening of its intention to sue the CSU.
Hillel is "demanding they rescind this decision," she said. "Hillel also has no intention to abide by this decree."