TORONTO (Jan. 2)
The struggle on college campuses between supporters and opponents of Israel is far from over, but administrators at some universities already are learning its lessons.
Four months after pro-Palestinian rioters at Montreal’s Concordia University forced the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, administrators at Toronto’s York University took swift action to prevent pro-Israeli academic Daniel Pipes from being shut down.
Under pressure from the pro-Palestinian Middle Eastern Students Association, a student-run center had withdrawn its invitation to Pipes at the last minute. A faculty group also withdrew its co-sponsorship of Pipes’ speech.
Five days later, York administrators arranged for Pipes to speak this week in a cordoned-off basketball court UNDER heavy security — despite threats from pro-Palestinian students to blockade roads on campus and do whatever else they could to prevent the event.
As many as 100 uniformed, undercover and mounted police patrolled the building and grounds, and two more police divisions from neighboring regions were on standby.
An anti-Pipes demonstration that at first consisted of about 300 participants, but later shrank to about 180, was loud at times but always orderly.
Some two dozen protesters, many from MESA, later took over the office of York’s president, Lorna Marsden, for about five hours. They left peacefully after being assured that Marsden would hear their demands when she returned from out of town.
Fearing a repeat of the Concordia riot, York officials had spent days working out a security plan with police and security experts from the Canadian Jewish Congress, which bore part of the costs.
In a report released several weeks ago, Concordia officials admitted they had been caught off-guard by the September riot, and hadn’t had adequate security precautions for Netanyahu’s visit.
In addition, more than 100 people signed a December ad in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, claiming that Canadian Jewish students are so traumatized by campus anti-Semitism that they are frightened to speak out on behalf of Israel or even Judaism.
Others accused the ad’s backers of hyperbole. But Canadian university administrators now seem willing to err on the side of caution to ensure order on campus and protect the free speech of visitors such as Pipes, director of Philadelphia’s Middle East Forum think tank and creator of a controversial Web site called Campus Watch.
"Our focus was on ensuring that this event took place safely and that members of the York community would be allowed a free expression of their views," Cim Nunn, a university spokesperson, told JTA.
University officials wanted the strong police presence and "recognized that if they erred, it would be on the side of caution," Nunn said.
Some 250 people showed photo IDs and passed through airport-style metal detectors to hear Pipes speak on "Barriers to Peace in the Middle East." His main thesis was that peace initiatives such as Oslo are useless, and indeed damaging to Israel, until the Arab world accepts Israel’s right to exist.
There were about 25 police officers in the room, including undercover agents in the audience.
Attendees were advised that interruptions, questions, heckling or prolonged noisemaking would not be tolerated. As numerous media cameras focused on the speaker, two security cameras monitored the audience.
A minor disruption occurred when one student shouted "Racist!" as he and several others began to walk out during the lecture. They were escorted the rest of the way by police.
At the end of the half-hour lecture, questions were allowed in written form only.
"We learned our lesson well from Concordia," said Bernie Farber, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress’s Ontario region. "York would have been a prize for these people. If they had succeeded in shutting down Daniel Pipes at York University, it would have been open season for shutting down all pro-Israeli speakers at campuses across the country."
Like their counterparts at other Canadian universities, members of York’s Jewish Student Federation acknowledge that the campus climate has become decidedly anti-Israeli since the Palestinian intifada erupted more than two years ago.
"There have been a few tense moments," said Dan Held, the federation’s Israel Affairs Coordinator. "But we still have good relations with the Middle Eastern Students Association, and our hope and aim is that we can continue our discourse in a peaceful environment."
York’s 40,000-member student body includes about 4,500 Jews, university officials say.
While the Concordia riot has made some university officials determined to provide adequate protections for free speech and campus security, others seem less willing to host events associated with Israel.
Pipes originally had been scheduled to speak in a student-run facility called The Underground, but the venue’s manager canceled the booking under pressure from MESA.
York’s Center for International and Security Studies had agreed to co-host Pipes’s visit. But the center’s director, political science professor David Dewitt, also canceled after coming under pressure from MESA.
"There was an attempt to intimidate Dr. Dewitt and the student center by references to what happened at Concordia, and by saying that the same thing would happen here," Kaye said.
However, Dewitt said in a statement that the decision had been due partly to ideological reasons.
"At the time the decision to co-sponsor the event was made, the center was unaware of Mr. Pipes’ links to Campus Watch," the statement said.
The four-month-old Web site monitors and critiques Middle East studies professors whom it considers anti- American or anti-Israel.
The university’s faculty association also issued a statement decrying what it called Pipes’s "racist agenda."
Faced with the task of finding a secure venue for the talk in a hurry, members of the Jewish Student Federation contacted the Canadian Jewish Congress, which opened discussions with the university administration.
Congress officials credit Marsden, York’s president, for recognizing the need to protect a visiting speaker’s free speech.
Pipes said he had experienced only one previous attempt — also unsuccessful — to shut down his lecture, at an American campus about two weeks ago.
"These are barbarians who would close down civil discourse," he said.