Al-Awda event goes smoothly at U of T
By Laura Katsirdakis
A controversial conference was held this past Sunday by the
Al-Awda, a Palestinian Right of Return group, at a University
of Toronto campus building.
The conference was originally planned for the weekend of Nov.
22 and 23, but university administrators cancelled the conference
at the last minute because of numerous complaints alleging
the group’s “Basis of Unity” agreement obstructed
freedom of speech by denying opposing views from being voiced.
The dispute resulted in protests on U of T’s campus between
pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups with tensions leading
to one arrest.
“The conference went very well,” said Dina Damiri,
co-ordinator of Al-Awda at U of T, noting that although the
conference was condensed from two days to one, everything on
the agenda was accomplished and there was a good turnout.
“The university has been working very closely with [Al-Awda]
to find a solution,” said Jane Stirling, assistant director
of news services in public affairs at U of T. “There
were a number of individuals and groups who called and e-mailed
us with concerns about the conference.”
Stirling explained that the contentious issue was the “Basis
of Unity” pact to which participants of the conference
were required to sign agreement. The pact included such things
as supporting Palestinian resistance to Israelis and colonialism
by any means of their choosing, an insistence on a one-state
solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a statement
that “Israel is a racist and apartheid state.”
“The student group agreed to withdraw the pact; they
did not ask [participants] to sign the Basis of Unity,” Stirling
explained. “The event went very well, students took a
very responsible approach.
“There was a great exchange of ideas and opposing views
were heard [in Sunday’s conference],” she said. “This
fit perfectly with what the university is there to promote:
“The whole idea [with the Basis of Unity] was to get
like-minded people to come and organize the conference,” Damiri
said. “The university twisted things to make it sound
like we were forbidding freedom of speech.
“Participants in the conference did not have to sign
[the Basis of Unity],” Damiri said, noting the complaints
issued to the university likely blew the issue out of proportion. “The
conference was open to everyone.”
Stirling explained that an off-site police presence was established
to ensure security, and third-party students — unbiased
with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — attended
the conference to ensure the flow of discussion was fair. “There
was no organized protest [at the conference].”
Damiri noted she was satisfied with the solution the university
agreed on, but added the university’s caution stemmed
from a misunderstanding.
The solution reached between Al-Awda and the university’s
administration included the provision of security, and in Damiri’s
words, “the assurance that anyone disturbing the conference,
making inappropriate comments or insulting the Basis of Unity
would have to leave.”
“They have a right to hold meetings and conferences,” said
Lisa Isen Baumal, director of Hillel at U of T. “The
concern we had was [that] the content of the conference events
[might] incite hatred and violence on campus,” she said,
adding she felt the university handled the situation well.