Canada’s campuses and Middle East politics
By Dan Perry
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
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
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
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.