Produced and Directed by Martin Himel
In September 2002, pro-Palestinian activists at Concordia University in Montreal resorted to force and intimidation to prevent former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on campus. Blocking the only entry to the lecture hall, student and non-student activists took over the building and pushed, spat on and, in some cases, hit and kicked those determined to hear Netanyahu. Outside, anti-Israel demonstrators broke a series of windows, prompting police to cancel the lecture because of safety concerns. The shocking incident was captured on tape and featured in the documentary Confrontation @ Concordia which aired in May and July 2003 on Global TV. The program was produced by journalist Martin Himel, who has worked for a variety of networks, including CNN, PBS and Fox. .
The documentary presented the radical agenda of some pro-Palestinian activists, the misuse of the student government, and the precariousness of free speech on campus today.
It should be noted that Israel Asper who owns Global TV also co-sponsored Netanyahu’s speech.
Confrontation @ Concordia opened with students frantically posting signs in Spring 2003 for an upcoming student election. (The results of the election were influenced by the controversy.) The documentary then provided footage of the disturbing riot that prevented Netanyahu from speaking. One student was surrounded and pushed by a huge crowd as the protesters shouted “down, down Yisrael [Israel]. In another scene, the mob stole an Israeli flag from a student and trampled on it. Those who made it past the demonstrators to the auditorium where Netanyahu was scheduled to speak were visibly disappointed by the cancellation and were trapped in the room until it was safe to leave. According to the student newspaper The Link, students were held in the auditorium for nearly two hours and needed to be escorted out by police. Outside, protesters rejoiced in their “victory.”
Disappointed students after cancelled Netanyahu speech, unable to leave auditorium because of protester's violence
Following the riot, the documentary followed several Muslim and Jewish students for the next few months, including Samir Elatrash, leader of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. Elatrash was suspended for three years for his part in the riot, but remains in school while he appeals, though he is supposed to abstain from political activity. Responding to accusations that his views are anti-Semitic, Elatrash averred that one can be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic. Elatrash told Himel that “Judaism existed before the state of Israel and it will flourish after the state of Israel.”
Elatrash being escorted by campus police from Concordia.
Himel also interviewed Hillel activist Yoni Petel whose grandparents were expelled from Iraq in 1948. Petel commented that when discussing the Palestinian refugees, the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands is often ignored.
Laith Marouf, a former Concordia Student Union vice president, is an activist for the Palestinian cause who also appeared in the film. Marouf seemed to feel justified in preventing anyone with whom he disagrees to speak. According to Globe and Mail, Concordia was considering bringing Natan Sharansky to the campus and Marouf told the paper that “we will shut down Sharansky like we shut down Netanyahu” (Jan. 21, 2003).
None of the students Himel interviewed who participated in the riot expressed any remorse for their abusive treatment of fellow students.
The documentary also probed the Concordia Student Union’s role in the controversy. In recent years, the student union had become increasingly involved in the Palestinian cause as well as other political issues such as the anti-war and anti-American movements. Several pro-Palestinian activists held positions in the student government.
The most controversial decision made by the CSU was to shut down the Jewish student group (Hillel) based on the tenuous charge that Hillel was allegedly distributing materials on campus recruiting overseas volunteers for the Israeli military, which they claimed violates Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act. In the documentary, Yoni Petel told Samir Elatrash and his friend that he felt the CSU’s decision was anti-Semitic “since it was the first time that a Hillel was shut down since 1938.”
Himel’s documentary also captured the darker side of the rallies protesting the war in Iraq. Scenes of local anti-war marches showed blatantly anti-Semitic banners. Many of those protesting the war in Iraq used the rallies to denounce Israel’s existence.
The larger student body began to gripe that CSU’s activism overshadowed other aspects of university life. Caroline Lui, a Concordia student, complained to Himel that “the problem is when activism takes over the whole reason why we’re here because we are here to learn. That’s our main goal.”
Some students who were tired of the CSU using its position to further a political agenda formed a new party called Evolution not Revolution to challenge the current CSU officials, who were mainly affiliated with the Clean Slate party, in the upcoming election. Hillel backed Evolution.
The final scene of the documentary announced the results of the elections. In a landslide victory of Evolution not Revolution, Concordia students decided they want the CSU to be more representative of the student body.
While the documentary ended on a positive note, the problem of some students infringing on others’ free speech continues to trouble campuses across North America.
In the broadcast, Middle East expert Daniel Pipes characterized college campuses as “islands of repression in a sea of tolerance.” Interviewee Benjamin Netanyahu believed the problem is individuals who “cannot tolerate anyone who deviates from their orthodoxies… and who will not allow the free market of ideas.”
Martin Himel’s Confrontation @ Concordia illustrates the fragility of our most cherished democratic values when challenged by violence. It also highlights the importance of students’ involvement in campus politics, so that extremists are not permitted to hijack the agenda.
by Deborah Passner
This film review can also be found here: http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=46&x_review=9