Western students, faculty react to situation in Gaza

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Flags fly over the heads of demonstrators holding pictures of war-torn families

Shaun Ding

IN SEARCH OF A RESOLUTION. Over 400 Western students and faculty both for and against recent military actions in the Gaza Strip lined the street in front of Thames Hall and Sommerville House yesterday afternoon. For more pictures on what transpired, check out the photo gallery.

A peaceful gathering protesting the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip came to Western’s campus late yesterday afternoon.

Despite cold conditions, the event attracted a large crowd from the Western community, including supporters of both sides of the conflict and curious onlookers.

Dima Alsakka, a second-year health sciences student who helped organize the event, explained the protest was an independent student reaction to the humanitarian crisis happening in the Gaza Strip.

Starting at 4 p.m., the protest lasted an hour and a half and included a couple of faculty speakers. While the beginning of the event saw Palestinian and Israeli supporters peacefully intermingling, campus police soon asked the two groups to separate to avoid potential problems.

Elgin Austen, director of Western’s Campus Community Police Service, said both groups were very co-operative.

“Everyone I talked to wanted to get their message out in a non-violent way,” Austen said.

Austen noted this protest was better organized than past protests on Western’s campus.

Kyle Brykman, a second-year Ivey student and a member of Israel on Campus, was pleased with the level of civility shown.

“Last year there was a rally which saw considerable yelling on both sides,” Brykman said. “Today there was pretty much nothing " both sides showed respect towards each other so I think that’s a ray of hope for the future.”

Munir El-Kassem, assistant director for clinical affairs with the department of dentistry, spoke for the need for education on the issue. Both sides seemed to have that in mind as they handed out pamphlets to passersby.

“I think it’s very important for both sides to represent their perspectives and it’s up to Western students to decide which side they’ll believe,” Brykman said.

When asked about the Israeli presence at the gathering, El-Kassem explained: “There is opposition. We are all here for a cause and we will support that cause. Hopefully we can find our way to the middle and a way to peace.”

“Western is a prestigious institution ... when we recognize [a humanitarian crisis] we do everything in our hands to stop it,” Alsakka said of the gathering.

The protest was intended to be mostly silent " a decision El-Kassem explained was intended to encourage onlookers to be more comfortable in talking to demonstrators.

But some felt the decision to remain silent may have sent the wrong message.

“I think we need dialogue ... and as uncomfortable as dialogue sometimes may be I think we still need it,” Brykman said.

Yesterday’s protest came at a time when other major members of the university community in Canada are struggling to determine how to approach the issue.

On Jan. 5, Sid Ryan, president of the Canadian Union for Public Employees Ontario division, announced he would be bringing a resolution to CUPE’s next meeting supporting a ban on Israeli academics at Ontario universities.

“We are ready to say Israeli academics should not be on our campuses unless they explicitly condemn the university bombing and the assault on Gaza in general,” Ryan said in a CUPE press statement.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers also released a public statement calling for the end to Israel’s military action in Gaza, though they chose to not support a ban on Israeli academics.

“We’re concerned with what Hamas is doing in terms of lobbing rockets into Israel,” said Jim Turk, president of the CAUT. “But we’re also concerned about Israel’s response which seems to be disproportionate. But to say that we’re going to boycott Israeli academics in response isn’t a very credible position from our point of view.

Turk explained CAUT was concerned mainly with the environments needed for universities to function.

“Universities only can survive and play their role in society in the context of peace and basic civil liberties and human rights ... So a lot of the concern that we raise comes from imagining how it would be impossible in the context of Gaza right now for educational institutions to even function.”

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