Day of broken glass

Retreating back to the confines of Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel after the cancellation of his pro-Israel rally at Concordia University on Monday, a visibly angered Benjamin Netanyahu declared those who protested against his presence to be “mad zealots” — among other choice epithets — not to mention supporters of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

I was one of the more than 1,000 people who gathered to protest against Mr. Netanyahu, and it’s news to me that our demonstration was sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or any other terrorist/dictator of convenience. Of course, Mr. Netanyahu is no fool; in the neo-McCarthyite tradition, he knows full well that it’s best to throw as much dirt as possible against Palestinians and their allies (including many Jewish allies), who together had effectively shut him down.

Smears, insults and smoke screens have been the modus operandi of Mr. Netanyahu’s political career, against even domestic Israeli opponents who offer minor concessions to the Palestinian people. All the better to distract the public from reckoning with the reality of Mr. Netanyahu’s destructive policies and world-view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One smoke screen in particular has been the idea that, somehow, the protest at Concordia was an attack on free speech, expression and debate — as if Mr. Netanyahu has ever had to worry about effectively exercising his right to express his views to Western audiences. His Canadian schedule was full of meetings with reporters and fawning Asper-approved editorial boards — and they, in most cases, were acting as glorified stenographers rather than critical journalists.

Free speech, expression and debate are crucial values in a society presumed to be democratic, but it wasn’t the protesters who were attacking those values on Monday; rather, it was the organizers of Mr. Netanyahu’s event at Concordia, as well as the university administration, that gave the event a go-ahead.

Let’s put things in perspective: Mr. Netanyahu’s speech at Concordia was not going to be some usual public lecture or debate, open to dissenting points of view or even a vigorous question-and-answer period. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu’s audience was pre-screened and essentially handpicked for what was to be a pro-Israel propaganda rally (a promotional e-mail for the event urged participants to bring their Israeli flags).

Moreover, an entire section of the main building was shut off to students, during a peak period, while police were allowed to set up barricades around the university. Before the protest even started, riot police were placed inside the building, while security and public relations officials told students trying to attend their classes to enter through a side entrance, instead.

Contrast the “Netanyahu rules,” as they apply to free speech, with the organization of events by Palestinian activists at Concordia and elsewhere. Those events have always been open to the public, and they allow dissenters to ask questions. While often involving heated and vigorous exchanges by both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students, the events have been genuine models of free speech, discussion and debate; free speech, after all, is sometimes messy, and not the stage-managed propaganda Mr. Netanyahu prefers.

Of course, it’s exactly that open debate on the Middle East conflict at Concordia that has so angered apologists for Israeli human-rights abuses, and has made the student activists at Concordia open to unsubstantiated smears.

There was absolutely no intention by the organizers of the Netanyahu speech to allow Mr. Netanyahu to be challenged, except perhaps by the mainstream media. Not expecting the corporate-owned media to do the job for them, Palestinian students and allies responded accordingly and organized a counterdemonstration, with the intention of confronting Mr. Netanyahu on what we see as his record as a war criminal.

I helped write the warrant for Mr. Netanyahu’s “arrest” with both Palestinian and Jewish student activists at Concordia. It was based on a similar warrant written by activists at the University of British Columbia in 1997 to oppose the presence of then Indonesian president Suharto during the APEC summit.

To be clear: If apologists for Mr. Netanyahu want to organize a political rally for him in Montreal or anywhere, they can do so. But don’t expect to shut down a university in the middle of the day to make it happen. And certainly don’t expect Palestinian students — many of whom are direct victims of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies and the Israeli occupation — to sit idle, or settle for being “polite.”

What Palestinian protesters were doing on Monday — with help from their allies from various communities — was to stand up for their rights, as well as their basic dignity as human beings. They were confronting head-on a man responsible for crimes against their people.

The so-called “violence” — unarmed students trying to push through riot police in their own building, others breaking windows or throwing objects in anger as the police beat and gassed demonstrators — is a distraction to one of the important elements of what happened at Concordia. Palestinians living in Montreal asserted themselves, and were able to gain a tangible victory against none other than a former right-wing Israeli prime minister who has built a reputation on keeping the Palestinians “in their place.”

Seen in that context, Mr. Netanyahu’s anger is understandable, and his Orwellian smears against Concordia protesters completely predictable.

Jaggi Singh is a social justice activist based in Montreal.

Date: Fri, 13 Sep 2002 16:36:06 -0400 (EDT)
From: Jaggi Singh
To: Globe and Mail
Subject: Letter submission

To the editors of the Globe and Mail
September 13, 2002

I am writing to object, in the strongest possible terms, to the selection of the headline to accompany my Comment submission in today’s Globe and Mail — “Day of Broken Glass”. For the record, my original submission was titled “Netanyahu and Free Speech”. Apparently, that wasn’t sensational enough for the Globe’s headline writers. However, to choose a headline that inevitably alludes to the “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht) — the Nazi organized pogrom of Jews in Germany in 1938 — grossly misrepresents both the pro-Palestinian protest against Netanyahu in Montreal, as well as my article.

There is absolutely no comparasion to make between the two events, and the parallel only re-iterates the smears against Palestinians and their social justice allies that my piece addressed. Criticisms of Israel, and political figures like Netanyahu, are not tantamount to anti-Semitism.

In the course of the demonstration on Monday, there was physical jostling, and confrontations between both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators. I myself saw Arabs who were spit on, and called “bloody Arab” or “savage” by various ticket-holders for the Netanyahu event. Some pro-Israel demonstrators claim to have been called racist names, and to also have been assaulted. In all cases, I condemn any incidents of racist or anti-Semitic speech or action, as I have always done.

But to be clear: the Monday demonstration in Montreal, which included many Jewish participants (including some who were arrested), was focussed on the actions of the state of Israel, the record of Benjamin Netanyahu, and the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people who live under de-humanizing occupation. The comparasion, even indirectly, of this protest for the rights of Palestinians to the Nazi-organized killing of at least 96 Jews, the burning of at least 1000 synagogues, and the destruction of at least 7500 Jewish-owned businesses in 1938 Germany, is entirely without foundation, and a libel on the overwhelming majority of protesters who equally condemn all forms of anti-Semitism — no matter the degree — as well as Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.