December 2 , 2003  
Volume 97, Issue 52  

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NEWS

Al-Awda event goes smoothly at U of T

By Laura Katsirdakis
Gazette Staff

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: open dialogue.”

“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.

 

 

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