Responding to Speakers: Two Paradigms of Protest
Former Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Legislative Council Member Hanan Ashrawi were recently invited to speak on campuses across the continent on the issue of terrorism. The speakers attracted a large range of protestors on both sides; however, the protesters' methods were as different as the speakers themselves.
In Montreal, Netanyahu's speech was confronted with over 200 pro-Palestinian protesters. These protesters occupied a university building, threw bricks and broke glass. When confronted by Israel's supporters, the pro-Palestinian protesters physically assaulted several people. Police were forced to enter the building to stop the incident, and due to the level of violence, were required to use pepper spray. Netanyahu was then asked not to speak out of fear for his safety.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ashrawi was greeted with approximately the same number of pro-Israel protesters. However, these protesters stood peacefully, but vocally, outside of the hall where Ashrawi spoke. The protesters held signs and placards demonstrating their viewpoints and challenged what the pro-Palestinian counter-protesters were saying.
According to the co-president of Concordia's Hillel, Noah Sarna, "Jews were beaten up and spat on, windows were broken, [and] chairs were thrown." Instead of calmly and respectfully challenging the pro-Israel group on campus, the pro-Palestinian students chose a path of violence and disrespect. In response, the student government of Concordia University voted to use student money to cover the legal fees of the students arrested. The administration at Concordia decided to place an indefinite moratorium on use of campus property for debates regarding the conflict in the Middle East. In effect, this incident led Concordia University to condone violence and an end to free speech.
In contrast, at Colorado College, pro-Israel protesters actually spoke with the pro-Palestinian protesters. Even though Colorado senators, the governor, and citizens across the country decried Ashrawi's speech due to her history as an "apologist for terror," Colorado College still asked her to speak. According to the Associate Professor of Music Ofer Ben-Amots, "The protest was very successful in my opinion — even Ashrawi expressed her surprise about the massive opposition. After the protest, a few of us crossed to the other side of the rope and discussed the issue with the Palestinian protesters." Colorado College helped facilitate appropriate response mechanisms by roping off areas for the protest and counter-protest outside the hall. Students in the hall jeered at Ashrawi at certain points, but the main form of protest was holding signs that declared "I disagree."
Universities are supposed to be havens for free speech and academic discourse. They should not be venues for disruptive violence and hatred. The week of September 9 saw examples of both of these paradigms. Daniel Pipes reflected on ways to deal with speakers with whom you disagree, whiles still maintaining a certain level of respect and decorum in an article in the Jerusalem Post and the New York Post. "How things turn out will depend on which form of activism prevails — the holding of pink sheets of paper with "I disagree" written on them or the throwing of chairs from balconies."