MONTREAL (Dec. 11)
Concordia University’s Hillel has decided to sue to force the student union to rescind a week-old ban on the Jewish group.
The Concordia Student Union voted Dec. 2 to ban Hillel from campus because of fliers found on a Hillel table advertising Mahal 2000, a program that allows volunteers to spend several months in the Israeli army.
Hillel decided to file suit at a meeting Tuesday night, after the Student Union ignored Hillel’s Monday evening deadline to issue a written apology and unconditionally reinstate the Jewish group.
“Basically, we discussed what damages we would be seeking in court and what our goals were,” Concordia Hillel’s co-president, Noah Joseph, said after the meeting.
Joseph cast the lone dissenting vote in the Student Union’s Dec. 2 vote to ban Hillel. The vote came close to midnight of a hastily arranged meeting, with just 9 of 27 union council members present.
The Student Union’s Executive announced that over the weekend it had agreed to allow Hillel back on campus conditionally, provided Hillel signed a statement pledging to adhere to the union’s policy guidelines, including not distributing literature that the union deems offensive.
However, Hillel officials said they had received no such statement, and are demanding that they be reinstated without conditions.
The ban on Hillel was the latest in a string of anti-Israel actions on campus. In September, pro-Palestinian rioters forced the cancellation of a speech by Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Jewish students have reported being verbally and physically intimidated on campus, and one was beaten up a week after the cancelled Netanyahu speech.
Those incidents followed pro-Palestinian rallies, when the intifada began in the fall of 2000, that featured placards proclaiming “Death to the Jews” and marchers chanting anti-Zionist slogans.
The Student Union 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 complaint against the Mahal 2000 flier was brought by Samir Elatrash, founder of the campus’ Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. Though he has been barred from campus for his alleged role in the September riots, Elatrash attended the Student Union meeting that voted to ban Hillel, sources said.
Hoping to save face and avert a lawsuit, the union’s Executive had asked the university administration to order it to reinstate Hillel. However, with the Student Union answerable not to the administration but rather to Quebec’s provincial Education Ministry, Concordia administrators refused.
In a statement on its Web site, the administration noted that the Student Union has reacted angrily in the past when it thought the administration was overstepping its boundaries.
“Therefore, it is particularly offensive to request the university overturn union council decisions on an invitation-only basis when it is to the advantage of the CSU,” the statement reads. “The CSU Executive has the authority to take the same action that they have requested of the university administration. We cannot absolve them of their responsibility and legal duty to conduct their affairs in a fair, equitable and non-partisan manner.”
It also said the administration believed the “sanctions against Hillel are wholly disproportionate and should be modified.”
On Tuesday night, Hillel instructed lawyer Michael Bergman to take the matter to court.
“As far as I know, this is the first time since at least the1930s that a Jewish organization has been banned or proscribed from a university campus, anywhere in the free world,” Bergman told JTA.
Bergman said his goal was to see that Hillel’s rights are protected.
“The CSU not only breached their own bylaws and constitution with the action taken, but they violated our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The four fundamental rights — of freedom of religion, speech, association and assembly — have been violated,” he said. “It doesn’t get any clearer than that.”
Bergman said he would seek punitive damages from the Student Union. It will take up to two weeks to file the necessary documents and schedule a preliminary hearing, he said.
David Bernans, the Student Union’s archivist and researcher, said he is sorry Hillel “jumped to legal action” without waiting for the Student Union to meet on Thursday, when it is to discuss the impasse.
He also said the issue could be resolved if Hillel would just sign a code of conduct that Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights already had signed. In effect, signatories agree not to distribute materials that are racist or discriminatory.
Bernans also took exception to Hillel’s accusation that, with the ban in effect, Jewish students no longer have a voice at Concordia.
“It’s wrong for them to say that Jewish students have been silenced. Hillel does not speak for all Jewish students,” he said. “In fact, we know of a group called Jews Against Racist Scapegoating that has put posters up at Concordia, asking why Hillel will not sign” the code of conduct.
Hillel officials said they will watch the results of Thursday’s Student Union meeting, “but the conduct of the CSU” and pro-Palestinian elements at Concordia “over the last 18 months leaves us no reason to be optimistic,” Bergman said.
“It is my opinion that this whole thing, tomorrow’s meeting included, is a travesty,” he said. “This is not simply a matter of student hijinks, but affects the broader public as a whole, not just the Jewish community. Their behavior not only discredits Concordia University, but is designed to create propaganda meant to discredit the State of Israel.”