Mideast Tensions Rile Toronto Campus

Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian Students Clash at York University

By Sheldon Gordon

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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York University, a suburban Toronto campus with Canada’s largest concentration of Jewish students, is reeling from the “Concordia virus” — the spread of tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students that previously infected Montreal’s Concordia University.

Last week, Toronto police briefly arrested, but did not charge, a Jewish student for allegedly uttering a death threat after Palestinian students displayed an inflammatory banner. The week before, they arrested two anti-war protesters for allegedly assaulting two Jewish student activists.

The flare-up comes as mounting student dissent against the looming American war with Iraq has added to campus tensions fueled by the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Despite the turmoil, however, Martin Lockshin, director of York’s Centre for Jewish Studies, said the university’s environment is relatively favorable for Jewish students.

“Yes, there are things that supporters of Israel find offensive going on, as there are at other North American universities,” he said. “But there is an atmosphere here that is better for Jewish students — because of their numbers, because of their strength, because the president of the university [Lorna Marsden] is a good friend of the Jewish community and the State of Israel.”

York has an estimated 4,500 Jewish students — 10% of its overall enrollment.

Last Thursday’s incident erupted when a student group called Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights-York displayed a large banner with a yellow Star of David — reminiscent of Nazi-era persecution of Jews — and slogans referring to ethnic cleansing. The banner was intended to promote this week’s “Palestine Awareness Week” at York.

At the request of university officials, the Palestinian students took down the banner, but not before dozens of angry students traded polemics. It was during this confrontation that a female Jewish student allegedly uttered the death threat against a pro-Palestinian Jewish student.

The previous week’s incident occurred when two female students, prominent members of the right-wing Youth Zionist Partnership, walked near a crowd of 200 anti-war demonstrators mobilized outside the university president’s office. One of the partnership’s members, Miriam Levin, began photographing the demonstrators, sparking their anger.

Levin later alleged that, as she tried to flee the disorderly scene, she was grabbed and kicked by a female protester. The police arrested the female protester on an assault charge. However, an Israeli student who witnessed the incident said Levin was not touched.

Meanwhile, a male anti-war protester was charged with mischief after he was allegedly involved in an altercation that morning with two male members of the Youth Zionist Partnership. The two Jewish students were staffing an information table for the Alliance Party, a pro-American, pro-Israel political party. Protesters shoved one of the Jewish students and tried to set their American flag on fire.

“Some people are calling it Concordia II,” said Michelle Oliel, a third-year public-policy student who heads the Betar-Tagar student movement at York. “It’s those [Jewish students] who speak out who have the most to fear,” she says. “It’s not just a physical fear, it’s about our [future] careers. It has the effect of silencing a lot of us.” She said that pro-Palestinian students have shouted “Michelle Oliel is a racist” at her through megaphones and tried to have her dismissed from the executive of a campus political party.

Unlike the tensions at Concordia — where a large Muslim student population has physically intimidated a small Jewish student population — the turmoil at York reflects the hostility between two strong camps, according to the Centre for Jewish Studies’ Lockshin. Until this month, however, the York confrontation was largely focused on attempts to block each other’s visiting speakers from appearing at events on campus. Each side accused the other of attempting to suppress free speech.

In January, the Jewish Federation of Students invited Daniel Pipes, director of the right-leaning Middle East Forum, to give a speech called “Barriers to Peace” at York’s Student Center, followed by a luncheon hosted by York’s Center for International Security Studies.

York’s Middle Eastern Students Association denounced the invitation, accusing Pipes of being a racist because of his support for racial profiling to identify anti-American terrorists. The Arab students also objected to Pipes’ Web site, Campus Watch, which profiles American academics whom he considers anti-American and anti-Israel.

The two centers, fearing the kind of riot that greeted former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Concordia last September, canceled the events, but the university quickly rescheduled Pipes at another location on campus. The Jewish Federation of Students, however, was required to pay half the cost of security.

Last month, a member of the student federation urged the administration to cancel the campus speaking engagement of two pro-Palestinian activists who were both involved in the Concordia riot. The two activists were allowed to speak, but the administration demanded payment for the full cost of security from the event’s sponsor, a pro-Palestinian union local that represents York’s teaching assistants. Arab students complained that the full-cost policy showed that the administration had an anti-Arab bias.

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