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Does Harvard Divinity School’s acceptance of $2.5 million from United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Zayed, who allegedly had virulent anti-Israeli and anti-American writings posted on his website, concern you? If so, imagine that it wasn’t a question of keeping or returning the money, but of dealing with the fact that people with similar extremist views controlled your student government. As a student at Montreal’s Concordia University, this is the situation I have faced for the past two years. In fact, CNN’s “Capital Gang” could have used events at my alma mater for one of their “outrages of the week” every week for the past three years. A particularly glaring scandal took place in December when the Concordia Student Union (CSU) banned the Jewish student association Hillel without due process.
Concordia gained international attention for last year’s September 9 riot, which shut down the scheduled speech of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During the riot, a motley assortment of activists managed to occupy parts of the downtown campus, break windows and viciously taunt the speech’s ticket-holders. An elderly Holocaust survivor was reportedly spit on, while an Israeli flag was burned. As police barricades separated pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students, I walked by with a first-year art history class on a museum trip. Having already survived one year at the cantankerous university, I told the shocked freshmen, ‘Welcome to Con U!’.
Let me be clear: I support freedom of speech. Students had legitimate reasons to demonstrate against Netanyahu—but September 9, 2002 was a violent event where those attending the speech faced physical harassment. What’s more, many on the CSU executive openly supported the rioters for shutting down a “war criminal,” and the council immediately offered to pay legal fees for those charged with violence. Meanwhile, the victims of aggression, who were taunted with anti-Jewish remarks, kicked and spit on were ignored.
Following the incident, the university administration itself continued the CSU’s illiberal behavior by instituting a semester-long ban on campus activities relating to the Middle-East conflict.
Activists at Concordia like to brag that the school has a long tradition of “direct action”. During the heady days of 1969, the (in)famous “Computer Riots” occurred at Concordia’s Hall Building. Some students felt that not enough was being done to address complaints of racism against blacks in a particular professor’s grading. Instead of simply occupying the campus, the protesters chose to ‘take it to the man’ by throwing computers out of the seventh and ninth floor windows. A fire also broke out. This rage against the machines cost the university over $2 million.
Recently, even the Concordia student agenda became a locus for controversy. The 2001-2002 student planner—named Uprising after the Palestinian Intifada—claimed that May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s independence, was simply Al Nakba, “the catastrophe.” The planner called July 1, Canada Day, “anti-Canada day,” and encouraged students to burn the flag. And the planner contained an essay claiming that the “‘Jewish’ rector knows how much money the university owes to Zionists…”. The agenda’s highlight was an illustration on the only laminated page in the book, which shows a jet crashing into a boardroom of men dressed in suits. The caption underneath reads, “this is not an agenda called ‘uprising’, this is an agenda for uprising.” Eerily, the handbook was published just prior to September 11, 2001.
Radicals have dominated the CSU for the past three years. Many only take one or two classes in order to devote themselves fully to activism. Hard leftists, they ally themselves with many of Concordia’s large Middle-Eastern community on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, making the issue dominate student political life. Widespread apathy has also allowed extremists to flourish in the CSU. The executive that oversaw the Netanyahu riot was elected with less than 7 percent of the vote. But when campaigning, even they had pledged to tone down the extremism of their predecessors and to run the school with “dignity.” Unfortunately they reneged on their promise, titling this year’s agenda sUrPrising, and guaranteed to continue their forerunners’ fight for a very particular brand of social justice. Graffitied slogans of “Support the Intifada” and “The United States is the real terrorist” greeted visitors to the CSU office space.
Then Hillel was banned.
After being accused of distributing pamphlets with application forms to the Israeli Army, Hillel, the only Jewish student club on campus, was banned by the CSU in an emergency midnight meeting with not even half of council present. Due process, guaranteed in the CSU’s own constitution was waved aside. One doesn’t have to be a supporter of Ariel Sharon to see the injustice in such a decision.
Fortunately, Hillel has recently been reinstated (although its funding is still up in the air). Next year’s CSU was elected on a platform of “students first, activism second”. This new executive, called “Evolution not Revolution,” won by a landslide with one of the highest turnouts in Concordia’s history. And that’s the thing: The vast majority of students do not agree with the CSU’s recent extremism. Even though many, including myself, are strongly opposed to certain Israeli policies, very few believe in globalizing the Intifada. Academically, Concordia is a fine university with world-renowned faculties in the Fine Arts, Business, and Humanities. Unfortunately a shadow is cast over its achievements by reckless activism.
Concordia is less than 30 years old. One of its founding commitments was to give mature students a second chance at a higher education, making overall grades lower here than at other universities. Unlike at established institutions such as Berkeley and Harvard, political controversies here reinforce dubious claims that Concordia is not academically serious. Consider that next time you think Cornel West gave you a bad rep.
Julian Nemeth is a junior at Concordia University.
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