Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2002 / 4 Teves, 5763

Jewish group at Montreal university that canceled Netanyahu speech defies intimidation

By Lou Marano | Student government at a Canadian university is split after a rump session expelled a Jewish group for placing pamphlets on an information table for a program that seeks volunteers for the Israel Defense Forces.

Around midnight on Monday, Dec. 2, with nine of 27 council members present, the Student Union of Concordia University in Montreal suspended the rights of Hillel, the foundation for Jewish campus life, a move that deprives the group of funding raised by student activity fees and forbids it from setting up tables, holding events or booking rooms at the university.

Hillel flouted the ban. In what its attorney called "an act of defiance," members and supporters staged a protest on campus Thursday night, with singing and speeches, organized around the lighting of the Chanukah menorah. Montreal attorney Michael Bergman told United Press International that participants "showed that they would not accept or be bound by this illegal resolution. They would not see Jewish civil liberties and rights guaranteed under Canadian law trampled on, and they stood up for themselves."

At a news conference on Friday afternoon, CSU President Sabine Friesinger said the student union might have gone too far in suspending Hillel's funding. The Montreal Gazette reported that she said she would restore the money if Hillel, and all campus clubs, signed a commitment not to distribute material that promotes war.

"Nour Eltibi, secretary general of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, was present with CSU leaders at (the) press conference," the Gazette reported. "Friesinger conceded she did not invite Hillel."

The CSU did not respond to repeated phone calls from United Press International late Thursday and all day Friday.

The controversy arose just days after Concordia administrators lifted a ban on activities related to the Middle East imposed following violence on Sept. 9 that caused the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom Hillel had invited to campus. "University windows were smashed, some Jewish visitors were roughed up, and protestors overran the building where Mr. Netanyahu was to speak," Canada's Globe and Mail summarized on Oct. 16.

"We are confronting a very odious and obnoxious situation where a mainstream club is effectively being banned from any activity by a group of extremists without any justification whatsoever," Bergman told UPI.

The attorney said a high percentage of foreign-born, anti-Israel students and leftists have managed to get and hold power on the Concordia campus, and they are entrenched in the CSU. He said a condition of bail of one of the Sept. 9 protestors, Samer Elatrash, was that he was not allowed to enter the Concordia campus. Nevertheless, Elatrash was at the Dec. 2 CSU meeting. Elatrash was present at the Chanukah rally on Thursday, Bergman said, and was arrested. On Friday the Globe and Mail reported the arrest of a "pro-Palestinian student for violating his bail conditions."

Concordia Media Relations Coordinator Christine Mota said the CSU is an independent body under Quebec law that functions parallel to the university. "We have no authority over it. It has been accredited by the provincial government as a union, the same as labor unions are accredited. They live on our premises, but we have no say over what they do or how they do it." To do so would be seen as union-busting, she said.

"The CSU made a decision based on their reading of a federal law, the Foreign Enlistment Act, that the material that was being distributed by Hillel is illegal. They took action at their council meeting Monday night basically taking away official association status from Hillel and freezing any further funding, raised though student fees.

"Then the Student Union approached the university administration and said: 'The only way we will revoke our decision is if Hillel publicly apologizes and takes responsibility -- which they have not and will not -- or if the university's legal advisers tell us that (distribution of the pamphlets) does not break the law.' So our legal counsel, in consultation with external legal experts, are trying to determine whether distributing these pamphlets did in fact contravene Canadian law. Once that decision is made, it will be communicated to the Student Union, and they will act accordingly," Mota said.

She did not know Friday morning when the decision might be forthcoming.

The pamphlets were from the Mahal2000 program. Mahal is a Hebrew acronym for "volunteers from outside Israel." It was established in 1948, during the war from which the nation emerged, when thousands of volunteers -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- came from 29 countries to fight in the nascent Israel Defense Forces. One hundred nineteen were killed.

Today Mahal accepts non-Israeli Jewish males or females ages 18-30 willing to serve in the IDF for 18 months.

Questioned by UPI, two Montreal Hillel representatives were not clear about whether the foundation defends its right to distribute the Mahal pamphlets or whether their display on the information table was a brief irregularity that would not be repeated.

Ethy Cohen, coordinator of Israel Advocacy Programming for Hillel, said: "Somebody came by with these flyers for Mahal2000 and put them on our table." Hillel leadership was not consulted. "It's so blatantly obvious," she said. "They were just looking for an excuse to shut us down. It's just a smokescreen. Hillel is the only organized voice of opposition to the position on the Middle East of many of the members of the Concordia Student Union."

Attorney Bergman was asked if display of the pamphlets violates Canada's Foreign Enlistment Act.

"It does not," he replied, adding that on a particular day one student manned the Hillel table who had participated in the Mahal2000 program. "This student took it on his own initiative to put out a handful of flyers. They were on the table for a few hours. He did not recruit anybody."

Bergman called the charge that Hillel was recruiting for the Israeli Defense Force "far-fetched."

"The law prohibits recruiting for foreign armies, but I put to you that you must nuance this in two respects. First of all, no one was standing there soliciting people to join the IDF. And secondly, in Canada we import a great deal of American television -- by cable or by satellite -- under license of the Canadian Communications and Radio and Television Commission. And so we get to see all the recruiting commercials for the U.S. armed forces, which the Canadian authorities could easily blot out of the satellite and cable transmissions. And this is never done."

Bergman was asked if it is Hillel's position that it has a right to put out such flyers, or rather that this is a situation that escaped its control for a few hours and has been corrected.

"It is Hillel's position that these flyers are entirely innocuous," the attorney answered. "They are not a form of recruitment" and are consistent with other types of materials a university club might distribute, he said. "Hillel is not going to back down."

The reporter said he would consider the pamphlets recruiting materials.

"Nobody got up on a soapbox and said: 'Here are these flyers. Please look at them and join,'" Bergman responded.

The attorney was asked if he is involved in the process of legal evaluation described by university spokeswoman Christine Mota.

"The university has yet to contact me," he said, referring to his letter declaring the CSU resolution "null and void and illegal." A bailiff served the document to the student union, to Concordia Rector Frederick Lowy, and to university General Counsel Bram Freedman. Bergman said he learned only from the media that that the school is seeking legal interpretation.

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