Netanyahu speech canceled — this time in Montreal

MONTREAL — Concordia University long has been a center of Palestinian nationalism, but the Montreal school's pro-Arab fervor reached new heights this week.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a speech at Concordia on Monday after pro-Palestinian demonstrators wreaked havoc in the building.

Protesters threw chairs and other objects at police, who responded with tear gas.

By the time the smoke had cleared, the university's main lobby was littered with broken glass and chairs.

After the speech was canceled, pro-Israel activists, who police had asked to remain quietly inside the auditorium, spoke out.

"This is our school. This is not Gaza, this is not Bir-Zeit University," shouted Yoni Petel, the president of Montreal Hillel. "If tomorrow there is another riot, we will not let them take it away from us. We will stand here proudly once again."

Thomas Hecht, the Quebec chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee, had more disturbing news.

Hecht was spit on and kicked while accompanying the kippah-wearing Rabbi Mordecai Zeitz through the growing mob. Later, it was learned that others were also attacked.

The pro-Palestinian demonstrators later argued with Netanyahu supporters.

"To prevent an open debate, a lecture in a university, by a representative of a democratic society, of course that is wrong," an angry Netanyahu said at a news conference.

The incident was more violent than one in November 2000, when pro-Palestinian demonstrators prevented Netanyahu from speaking at U.C. Berkeley.

Concordia's rector, Frederick Lowy, said the university administration had been worried about the speech when it agreed to host Netanyahu.

"Sure it was a concern, with lots of potential for trouble at our multicultural campus," he said. "Because of their numbers, those who are pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel dominate the scene here. It is frustrating for us, in that the activities on our campus are distracted by these events."

Because of the university's emphasis on freedom of speech, it was decided after consultation with security officials that the Hillel request would be accepted.

Academic Norman Finkelstein, a critic of Holocaust groups and of Israel, is slated to speak at Corcordia next week, Lowy said.

Netanyahu had been scheduled to speak inside Concordia's downtown campus building at noon Monday. But the vocal Palestinian lobby at Concordia had made it clear from the outset that its goal was to prevent the speech.

Demonstrators, most of whom appeared to be of Arab descent, began congregating by 9:30 a.m. An hour later, the crowd had grown to about 350, but the atmosphere appeared calm.

Organizers chanted slogans such as "End the occupation now" and "One, two three, four, occupation no more." Palestinian flags and others with images of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, flew freely.

Nearby, fliers glued to building walls declared, "Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to Montreal. Let's make it clear he's not welcome." Others included a "warrant" for his arrest as a war criminal.

By 11 a.m., people with one of the 600 tickets made available to the public were permitted inside, passing through tight security.

Half the hall was filled when Lowy announced that a demonstration outside was out of control, and people were admitted more slowly.

At approximately 1:15 p.m., Lowy took the podium once more, to say Netanyahu's personal security team had decided not to allow him to enter the fray outside the building, where police were now using tear gas to disperse the ugly crowd.

Those inside the auditorium were asked to remain until it was safe for them to leave.

Subsequent pro-Israel chanting and singing drew a rebuke from a university official, who warned this could inflame those outside.

"We won't be ashamed of who we are," one student yelled, to unanimous applause.

Speaker after speaker denounced the nastiness outside.

Speaking to the media later, backed by Montreal Jewish leaders, Netanyahu denounced the protesters.

"What these people showed you today is that they're absolutely intolerant, absolutely extreme, in their totalitarian mentality. This is exactly totalitarianism versus freedom, which is at the heart of the battle being waged on the world stage."