January 16, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 59  

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Canada’s campuses and Middle East politics

By Dan Perry
Gazette Staff

Universities have always been known as hotbeds of political activity, and in the last few years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has brought its fair share of turbulence to campuses across the country.

The recent strife in York University’s student government surrounding slates of candidates representing different sides in the conflict is the latest in a string of events, which include arrests at the University of Toronto and the riot at Concordia University in September, 2002.

According to Salim Mansur, professor of political science at Western, debate is necessary to make any progress.

“Taking extreme measures on either side defeats the purpose of the university,” he said. “University’s a place where you should be able to debate anything and everything. But you don’t allow violence to take over.”

Western President Paul Davenport stressed the importance of protecting people’s rights in the debate as well. “What’s important is that debate be conducted in a safe, peaceful environment, where every student feels secure speaking his or her mind.”

Concordia has been labelled in some circles as a highly politicized campus, but Concordia’s co-ordinator of media relations, Chris Mota, said she didn’t necessarily agree.

“The debate goes on in the academic environment. It’s coming out in the best possible forms,” she said, pointing to the success of the “Peace and Conflict Resolution” series of events on campus, designed to keep a lid on potential disorder, and engender positive, progressive debate.

The current student government was elected on an “activities, not activism” platform, Mota added.
Similarly, U of T is supporting “open dialogue and tolerance,” according to spokesperson Jane Stirling, who reported good relations between differently aligned student groups on campus.

“Concordia was a learning experience; everybody realized the importance of maintaining decorum and safety,” she said.

Western’s University Students’ Council VP-campus issues Adrienne Kennedy said this campus has been no more politicized this year than in years past.

“The only difference is this year we have two groups who’ve come forward who are directly involved and have strong opinions on the conflict,” Kennedy said, referring to Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and the Israeli Action Committee.

IAC President Mat Abramsky said he was not concerned about politicizing campus. “We don’t face ourselves off against groups like the SPHR; we have a message to bring — that’s our job.”

SPHR campaigns manager Randa Mouammar also believes her group is not politicizing Western: “I don’t think we’re there to politicize campus, I think we humanize it. Our goal is to bring awareness, not to negotiate human rights.”

“It is the nature of university students to form clubs, including political clubs, to pursue particular ideas or goals — what’s important to me is that when these groups get together, they respect peaceful traditions,” Davenport said.

Tozun Bahcheli, a King’s College professor of political science, agreed that debate surrounding the conflict on Canadian campuses was healthy.

“There’s not much activism going on at Western — there has been some; [student] groups taking turns bringing in pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli speakers,” he said, adding many curious students without any attachment to the conflict have reported that they learned from the debates.



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